Tuesday, January 16, 2018

A Blizzard of Confusion

Okay, maybe calling the small ice storm a "blizzard" is a mild exaggeration, but it works well for the title. 

In all honesty, it probably doesn't even qualify as a "storm," but it is cold outside with precipitation and we all know that tends to confuse Houstonians.  It's kind of like having a successful pro sports team.  We hear that those exist in other parts of the country, but it's been so long since it happened here that we don't know what to do with ourselves.

Most governmental agencies in Harris County tend to err on the side of caution and just shut everything down.   With the weather forecasters predicting a freeze coupled with precipitation, the Houston Independent School District had announced school closures by mid-afternoon yesterday.  With that announcement, those of us with kids (who were now slated to stay home from school) turned our attention to what was going on with the criminal courts.

County Judge Ed Emmett was the first to speak on the topic by indicating that Harris County buildings would remain open.  By doing this, he basically punted to the different elected officials who resided within those buildings to determine whether or not they would be open.  I can understand why Judge Emmett would punt.  He didn't want to be the guy who singlehandedly gave the entire county a paid day off.

But by punting, he caused all of us who work within the Harris County Criminal Justice System to require 38 different answers from 38 different elected judges.  Complicating matters was the fact that Monday was Martin Luther King. Jr. Day, so none of those elected judges were at work to give definitive answers.

Fortunately, through the District Courts' website and Facebook page, the answers became available quickly for some of the felony courts. 


Additionally, Harris County District Clerk Chris Daniel was quick to announce that jury service for Tuesday was cancelled.

While this was certainly a substantial number of courts, it wasn't all of them.  There were several District Courts not on the list of closures, not to mention none of the sixteen County Courts had made a formal announcement.  Two of the County Court Judges (Judge Mike Fields and Judge Jay Karahan) took to their Facebook pages to announce that they would be closing their courts.  This morning, word was informally shared that ALL of the County Courts would be closed.

But there were still a couple of District Courts that had not spoken up yet, and there was total confusion as to whether or not the male and female Jail Dockets were being held.  One of the District Courts had a recorded voice message stating that the office was closed due to inclement weather, but the judge of that court had announced that he planned to have his afternoon docket as scheduled.  He ultimately relented and cancelled his 1 o'clock docket, but not until noon.

I'm sitting second chair on a case in that court with my good friend, Korey Huff, and the advice we gave to our client this morning went like this:

Call 1 -- "We haven't heard anything.  You probably need to come in."
Call 2 -- "The voicemail for the Court says they are closed, so you don't need to come in."
Call 3 -- "Nope.  Wait.  Sorry about that, they are now saying Court is open.  You need to come in."
Call 4 -- "Sorry again, now they are saying you don't need to come in."

It was embarrassing.  Nothing instills confidence in a client like decisiveness from his or her attorney.

Criminal Defense Attorneys on Facebook were blasting the lack of consistency and advance notice from the Judges.  That wasn't really fair to the judges who had made the effort to give quick notices of cancellations, but I understand the frustration. 

Believe me, I understand.  I was one of a handful of attorneys who drove in this morning for a jail docket, only to be told that they weren't able to bring over prisoners because the jailers were short-staffed.


It would seem to me that there should be a pretty simple solution to this confusion.  Both the District Court and County Court Judges have a presiding judge.  The individual judges should just vote to bestow power to those presiding judges to make the uniform decision of whether or not to shut down the courts.  They can make a decision the day before and they can publish that on a unified web page.

I get that the decision to shut down court is not one to be made lightly.  A missed day in court can lead to people being incarcerated longer than necessary.  But at the end of the day, sometimes public safety demands just that.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

You're lucky you're not a Deputy, we all had to come to work or get fired.

Murray Newman said...

Anon 9:16 p.m.,
No argument here.

Anonymous said...

Murray,

First, this was very predictable. I drove up from South Texas yesterday round 1 PM and there were accidents at every other bridge. In Wharton, there were three accidents in 1/4 mile, with I 69 eventually being shut down for a four mile stretch. If this was south of Houston, and it formed before noon, there was more than enough advanced notice.

Second, this is very predictable. We had a worse freeze a few years ago over the holidays, and I drove at 15 miles an hour to get to a county civil court - the only one open - so that my 25 or so fellow attorneys with docket call could be met by a clerk in jeans and a t shirt advising the judge wasn't coming in.

Third, this is very predictable. Shortly after the Harvey floods and the CJ center being closed, I had a setting in Montgomery County. I was discussing the issue with a prosecutor I know who also is involved in county politics. I was told that a couple of years ago, at a regional emergency management training, it became apparent that Harris County lacks a continuance of operations plan beyond seven days of emergency management in quite a few areas. The flooding and subsequent confusion underscores this fact, and what we saw yesterday tell me that it hasn't changed.

Korey Huff said...

I agree that having a better plan in place regarding court house closures would help calm some of the docket confusion within an already chaotic weather-day. I would hate to see anyone get hurt trying to get somewhere they may not have needed to be (clients, court staff, attorneys, judges included).

Anonymous said...

Technically, you are correct that the county (represented by Judge Emmett) owns the buildings and can close them. Historically, the call to close the courthouses has been left to the judges because they are elected officials who control their own dockets. Even during Harvey, that call was left to the courts. There used to be a culture among the judges that delegated the decision to their presiding judge and administrator. That culture has deteriorated to the point that each judge makes their own call. For the affected agencies and public, this is a nightmare of trying to get answers from as many as 38 courts with criminal justice jurisdiction. Even their administrative offices do not have the answers from the judges until it is too late to do proper planning in order to staff those courts. This is both a political and logistical problem that needs to be dealt with before a serious injury or death can be directly attributed to the lack of responsibility.

Anonymous said...

It is the Harris County way of doing business.

Anonymous said...

It's good to be the King