Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Pandemonium



I have to admit that when the judges said in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey that they would have the courts up and running by September 11th, I was skeptical.  With the CJC wiped out (yet again) by Mother Nature, confusion reigned.  Prosecutors had no idea where their offices were going to be, nor did the Public Defenders.  Additionally, thirty-eight different courts, a Grand Jury meeting place, Pre-Trial services, and a portion of the District Clerk's Office needed to be relocated as well.  My skepticism at getting everything up and going in under two weeks wasn't an insult towards the Powers That Be -- it was just an honest assessment of the task ahead of them.

Lo and behold, I was wrong and the Courts did actually start back up again by September 11th. 

Sort of.

Although dockets are running, things are far from normal.  Instead of all the courts being held in one central location, dockets are spread across five different buildings.  The sixteen County (misdemeanor) Courts are now at the old Family Law Center.  There are two courts assigned to each available courtroom -- one runs a morning docket starting at 8:30 and the other begins an afternoon docket at 12:30.  

I had my first post-Harvey misdemeanor case scheduled this afternoon, only to find that my client's case had been reset until late October unbeknownst to me.  The coordinator (who is awesome and I am by no means complaining about) said that they had strict numbers that they were allowed to have on each docket and they were doing the best they could.  They were having to reset so many cases that they weren't able to notify everyone involved.  We discussed the difficulty of notifying Defendants out on the unsecured bonds.

Fortunately, the prosecutor assigned to the court was still willing to talk to me about the case (even though it wasn't on the docket) and we worked out a tentative agreement.  It actually ended up being a pretty productive non-setting.

Other than the reset mix-up, the visit to Misdemeanor Land was pretty pleasant, all things considered.  The building wasn't terribly congested and several people utilized the stairs rather than wait on elevators.  The courtrooms weren't crowded, and everybody seemed to be in fairly good spirits.

The felony side of things wasn't quite as cheery.

The twenty-two Felony District Courts are spread across four buildings.  Twenty of the District Courts are housed in the Civil Court Building at 201 Caroline, where they are assigned two courts to a courtroom.  The two remaining District Courts (the 182nd and the 351st) are going to be housed in the Juvenile Justice Center beginning next week.  It seems there is a little bit of a mold issue to be cleaned up before they can begin.

The situation at the Civil Courts building is, um, not ideal.  My friend and fellow defense attorney, Brian Roberts, wrote his observations on it yesterday.  Coincidentally, Brian and I arrived for court this morning at the same time.  Taking the elevator in the county garage to the basement, we ran into a group of people waiting to go inside.  It seems that somebody had pulled the fire alarm and the Constables weren't allowing anyone into the building until everything was clear.

It was just like being back in the CJC!

In front of the Civil Building, several of the Civil Judges were handing out guides to which courtrooms were on certain floors.  It was a nice gesture, not to mention a decent way to get out and meet some future voters!

Inside the Civil Building, there are two sets of elevators.  One runs to the 8th Floor from the Basement and 1st Floor.  The other set runs to the 9th floor and above.  Apparently, the latter set only has two functioning elevators, which has led to a tremendous amount of congestion.

The felony dockets at the Civil Building are only for Defendants who are out on bond, because those courtrooms don't have jail holdovers for inmates.  With each courtroom housing two courts, the rooms are crowded and the hallways are packed with people who couldn't find seating inside.  Tension are high.   Places to sit down and talk with your client are hard to find.  Lengthy resets are being made to alleviate congestion, which can royally tick off some clients.  Yesterday, even two judges reportedly got into a confrontation with each other over the limited space available.

The vast majority of cases are just being reset down the road to hopefully calmer times.

If things at the Civil Building weren't bad enough for Defendants on bond, the situation for incarcerated Defendants is much worse.  Inmates in the Harris County Jail are having their court appearances in jail facilities -- one for female prisoners and a separate one for males.   The dockets are overcrowded. The chance of having a private conversation between attorney and client is non-existent.

Under normal circumstances, a Criminal District Court has somewhere around twenty to thirty inmates per docket, five days a week.  Now, due to the overcrowding, each of the 22 District Courts has been allotted one day of the week to hold a "jail docket."  Attorneys are being strongly encouraged to meet with their clients outside of court proceedings and to move the cases off the docket unless the case is likely to be resolved in court.  Given the overcrowding situation, that's a more than reasonable request.  Bringing a Defendant to court just to have him or her sign a reset and leave isn't going to help anything.

Today, the City of Houston shut off water to the jail, which, in return, caused the jail to cancel morning dockets for two of the courts.  I suppose they will just have to wait until next week.

So, at the moment, life at the Harris County Criminal Justice Center is pandemonium.  We've all been cast into multiple other buildings in the surrounding area and there is confusion and chaos across the board.  Prosecutors are commuting in from all over the county.  Defense attorneys are running from building to building, waiting on elevator after elevator, trying to make sure all of their clients are taken care of.

Despite all of this, the general attitude of regulars at the courthouse seems to be frustrated bemusement.  I think everyone involved has some level of understanding of the problems we are all facing.  Judge, Prosecutor, Defense Attorney, Coordinator or otherwise, people are doing their best to be patient with each other.   As we see people that we haven't seen since before Harvey made landfall, our first question to each other is to ask how one another fared in the flood.

All in all, I would describe the State of the Harris County Criminal Justice System like an emergency room.  Everyone is working to triage the cases.  Defendants out on bond are important, but they currently have their freedom.  Those in custody are taking the highest priority at the moment.  As Mark Bennett pointed out in this post, not even a natural disaster gets to infringe upon the Rights of the Accused.

That's the view as of Day Two.  Right now, things are disorganized, aggravating and sloppy.

But the Justice System is up and running.  It will get better in the days and weeks to come.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Did Jim Wallace really threaten to hold Nakita Harmon in contempt?

Anonymous said...

Always remember that there is opportunity is chaos.

Anonymous said...

Anony of 12:16 PM

She had been on the bench, basically doing nothing except complaining about a squeaky door for a while.

Judge Wallace had 4-5 pleas ready and wanted to clear it out, and for unknown reasons, she refused to give up the bench.

As I am sure you can imagine, it did not go over well with Judge Wallace, who pulled seniority and mumbled about having her arrested - much to the chagrin of all bailiffs.

He huffed off after Judge Brown interceded behind closed doors and she finally climbed off the bench after a plea or two.

Obviously, there is more to the tiff than the one day.

Or so I've heard

Anonymous said...

SO, y'all took issue with whether or not the civil judges aren't playing nice with the criminal judges, and yet the criminal judges are wanting to arrest each other?

Whatever happened with all the BS about how much nicer criminal lawyers and judges are to each other?

Murray Newman said...

Anon 3:18 p.m.,

Fair point! But normally we tend to get along better than we have this week!

Anonymous said...

Did any other buildings on the bayou get flooded like this one?
Who built this piece of junk for a courthouse?
Oh that's right, Harris County Commissioners approved it.
Is it still cheaper to renovate it (for the second time) than to have built it tight the first time?

Anonymous said...

Building it tight isn't the problem. The problem is it's closer to Buffalo Bayou than all the other court houses. The County built it in one of the lowest, most likely to flood parts of downtown. They had to have known that.

Anonymous said...

It is "Pandemonium" for most of us, but not for others.

I saw Bill Exley using an electronic key to access the freight elevator of the civil building today.

Must be nice.

It's ok, I need the stairwell workout.