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Lawsuit Challenging Harris County Felony Bail System Can Proceed to Trial

A federal judge has decided that a lawsuit challenging the Harris County felony bail system should continue to trial. The federal class action was brought by the same legal team that successfully challenged the county’s misdemeanor bail practices last year, resulting in a settlement that allows most defendants facing misdemeanor charges to be released without bail.

The plaintiffs’ team, comprised of Washington, D.C.-based Civil Rights Corps, the Texas Civil Rights Project and Houston law firm Susman Godfrey, is hoping to build on the systematic bail reforms started by the misdemeanor case. The current lawsuit, Russell v. Harris County, seeks a similar overhaul of the felony bail system. The plaintiffs — thousands of indigent arrestees detained pretrial due to unaffordable bail — argue that the system unconstitutionally discriminates against poorer defendants. The crux of the suit is that the right to pretrial release should not depend on financial means.

The defendants in the suit include all 23 Harris County felony district judges, 19 of whom oppose the lawsuit and are represented by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. The four who approve of the litigation have retained attorney Allan Van Fleet, who also represented the judges in the misdemeanor bail reform case.

In early October 2020, the judges represented by Paxton filed a motion to dismiss the federal suit on grounds of judicial immunity, lack of federal jurisdiction and lack of standing to sue. In a 65-page opinion denying the motion, Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal determined that jurisdiction was established because bail determinations implicate federally protected rights and that as a group, the prisoners have standing to sue, even though the individual plaintiffs would change over time as prisoners are released or transferred and new ones are jailed. Rosenthal further found that the case involves “vigorously disputed factual allegations that must be developed further to resolve the legal issues,” Including whether the judicial immunity defense should prevail.

Paxton’s clients are appealing the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Because the opinion focused solely on procedural issues, the appeals court won’t deal with the case’s substantive merits, namely, whether the felony bail system is unconstitutionally discriminatory.

At the Law Offices of Kevin Collins in San Antonio, Texas, we are defense attorneys with experience navigating the bail system and with a track record of securing our clients’ release on bail or on recognizance. If you’ve been arrested and want a staunch advocate to protect your rights, call 210-598-8629 or contact us online for a consultation.

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