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.