Federal appeals court judges in New Orleans heard arguments Tuesday on a lawsuit out of Houston that could dramatically reshape how local judges set bail for defendants accused of minor crimes throughout much of the South.
Civil rights lawyers told a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that judges are routinely stripping poor defendants of their right to a fair bail hearing. Lawyers for Texas judges said the federal courts should not intervene in a state matter.
The three judges gave no indication of how they will rule, but their decision could set a precedent for a similar federal lawsuit filed in New Orleans in June against Harry Cantrell, a magistrate judge in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court. The 5th Circuit has jurisdiction over Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.
“It depends on what they say, but certainly the same basic legal issues are at the heart of both cases,” said Alec Karakatsanis, of the Civil Rights Corps, a nonprofit law firm pursuing the cases in both Houston and New Orleans. “Can (authorities) throw people who are presumptively innocent in jail just because they can’t pay?”
A class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday accuses a New Orleans magistrate judge of turning a bli…
The matter before the appeals judges Wednesday was a temporary ruling issued in April by U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal of Houston, a George H.W. Bush appointee, who found that county judges there had violated defendants’ constitutional right against “wealth-based discrimination.”
Instead of considering whether defendants accused of minor crimes had enough money to make bond, judges stuck to a predetermined schedule of fees, Rosenthal found.
In one case, a 22-year-old single mother arrested for driving with an invalid license was ordered to pay $2,500 bail without an opportunity to speak to a judge. She spent three days in jail.
“Defendants who try to speak are commanded not to, shouted down or ignored,” Rosenthal said.
Orleans Parish Criminal District Court judges say they have scoured more than 4,000 arrest w…
The judge said in response to the constitutional violations, she was ordering Houston officials to release indigent misdemeanor defendants without forcing them to post cash bonds. The ruling does not apply to felony defendants.
As Rosenthal acknowledged in her ruling, the lawsuit in Harris County is part of a larger movement challenging the bail-bonds industry in the United States.
Civil rights lawyers say poor people are penalized for their poverty, while the bail-bonds lobby says its members provide an incentive for defendants to behave while on release.
The battle erupted in New Orleans in June with the lawsuit against Cantrell.
The Civil Rights Corps and the MacArthur Justice Center in New Orleans allege the magistrate judge set a minimum bail for misdemeanor offenses without considering defendants’ ability to pay.
“This court never goes any lower than $2,500,” Cantrell said in one case. “You don’t have to ask me for that anymore.”
In another case, Cantrell threatened to charge a public defender with contempt when the lawyer asked him to consider a lower bail.
U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon, a Bill Clinton appointee, has not reached a decision in the New Orleans lawsuit.
Meanwhile, officials in Harris County, which includes Houston, appealed Rosenthal’s ruling. On Tuesday, their lawyers argued that the federal judge had overstepped her authority.
As a group, the 13 judges of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court have never embraced a “p…
Charles Cooper, a lawyer for the judges in Texas, said the issues raised in the federal lawsuit were better suited for state court. He said that once defendants have received a court-appointed lawyer, they can make the case that they are unable to pay a cash bail.
But the federal appeals judges expressed fear that if they don’t step in, a barrage of those appeals could overwhelm Texas courts.
“You have hundreds of habeas corpus petitions hitting the county courts … instead of one class action?” asked Judge Edward Prado, who was appointed by President George W. Bush.
Cooper said he was confident there would be no “clogging” of the courts. He added that it was “simply, clearly erroneous” for the other side to claim that county judges did not consider individual circumstances.
“They do not rubber-stamp,” Cooper said. “They consider whether or not an unsecured bond is appropriate in every case.”
Meanwhile, Karakatsanis argued that Rosenthal was right to do away with the cash bail system for misdemeanor defendants. The judge found that most defendants had their bail set at a one- to two-minute hearing.
“What Judge Rosenthal found is that they’re never even asking the questions about ability to pay,” Karakatsanis said. “You have to afford the person an opportunity to be heard.”
Prado and the other judges on the panel — Edith Brown Clement and Catharina Haynes, both also appointed by George W. Bush — did not tip their hand as to how they might rule or when. But Prado and Haynes did ask whether Rosenthal overextended herself with her sweeping order.
“Part of the complaint was that there’s no discretion … but now under the injunction it’s that if you don’t have your hearing within 24 hours, you’re released. … Have we gone too far to the other side?” Prado said.
A group of people convicted of crimes in Orleans Parish lodged a federal class-action lawsui…