Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Court In a Time of Corona

With the City of Houston's decision to shut down the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo today, I think it hit home for most of us that the threat of coronavirus is truly going to be a lifestyle changer for days, weeks, and months to come.  It was one thing to see the stories on the news about festivals and events getting canceled.  Even hearing about South by Southwest getting canceled in Austin didn't really register for many of us.

But, canceling the freaking rodeo?  Shit just got real.

I've been worrying about coronavirus for weeks now; however, I also vividly remember being worried about SARS, Ebola, and swine flu.  Since none of those things ever hit Houston, I was kind of holding out hope that the same would happen with corona.  However, no such luck.

It looks like the Houston Independent School District is trying to just get through the next two days before reassessing its response during next week's Spring Break.

In the meantime, with two exceptions, the Harris County Criminal Justice Center appears to be open for business as always.  The first of those exceptions came from 232nd District Court Judge Josh Hill, who issued the following statement:
My policy for the 232nd always stands, regardless of what the other courts do.  If anyone believes their health or safety would be compromised by trying to get to court, stay home and make some attempt to contact the court to reschedule as soon as practical.  Any lawyer on any case can always request an off docket reset or to waive a client's appearance, regardless of health or safety scares.
Judge Hill is a good egg.  Similarly, County Court at Law # 8 Judge Franklin Bynum took time out of his busy schedule of fighting with HPD Chief Art Acevedo on Twitter to issue this statement:

Other than these two judges, there doesn't appear to be much reaction from the rest of the Harris County Criminal Justice World yet, which is pretty damn ridiculous considering that it has become clear that we are in a time where drastic measures need to be taken.

So, here are a couple of my random amateur epidemiologist opinions on what should be done:

1.  Follow Judge Bynum's lead and waive all bond appearancesPeriod.  
Much like the Rodeo, the Harris County Criminal Justice System pulls in thousands of people from all over the area and brings them into cramped conditions of wall-to-wall people,  Given how easily communicable coronavirus is, this is just begging for trouble.  Until the worst of this epidemic passes, there is absolutely no reason to put a higher value on managing docket numbers than human safety.

2.  Reschedule all jury trials for two months.  It is my understanding that Fort Bend County has canceled jury panel through the end of March.  If they can do it, so can Harris County.  Pretend like we got hit by Hurricane Corona.  We will get back online eventually.  It isn't ideal, but we will get through it.

3.  Give every inmate in the Harris County Jail on a non-violent offense a PR bond.  Yeah, nobody on the police/prosecution side is going to like this idea, I get it.  But once the coronavirus hits the jail, it will spread like wildfire.  Subjecting anyone to that as a sitting duck trapped in a cage is horrible to contemplate, but it becomes even more horrible if someone is sitting there on a drug charge or a theft charge.  

4.  Let non-essential employees work from home, especially those with compromised health issues. In our Internet age, we are more capable than ever to work from home with our online resources.  Read offense reports.  Watch statements.  Watch body cams.  Do some legal research.  Catch up on e-mails.   I can guarantee you that is what I plan on doing in the weeks to come.  It is ridiculous not to take advantage of that for government employees who can do the exact same thing.  I'm still laughing at Vivian King's memo today that she had ordered some hand sanitizer for the Office but that it is on backorder for eight weeks.  Good old Vivian is awesome in crisis.


5.  Pay appointed attorneys for their work when it is done instead of when the case is resolved.  I posted on this topic last year in this post when I encouraged the policy to help prevent attorneys from taking on too many cases.  If an attorney can work from his or her office or home on a case and get paid on a weekly basis, it is a win-win situation for all involved.  There will be more work done on cases.  Attorneys will keep a more manageable caseload.  Things can be effectively resolved without pointless appearances in court.  They stay safe at home.  Work gets done on cases.  They don't go bankrupt.  It will be great.

6.  Defense Attorneys should start taking collect phone calls from their clients.  Pat McCann gave me this piece of advice when I became a defense attorney.  I take collect calls from my clients.  I caution them about talking about anything that would be damning on their case because I don't trust that nobody is listening, but I can answer legal questions until the cows come home.   I don't do jail visits very often, but I'll take multiple phone calls a day from clients, and that makes them happy.   I'm near my computer when they call, so I can look up answers to their questions.  Make notes on what they are telling me and most importantly -- not pick up a disease at the jail.  

Those are just a few of my thoughts.  I'd like to hear your thoughts, too, so comment away.

At this point, I'm in disbelief that we've canceled the Rodeo but we've made no apparent plan for the Criminal Justice World in Harris County.  They also just canceled the NBA season.

I don't understand why the Courts are acting as if it is still business as normal.


Anonymous said...

And if the police department followed this line of logic? Just don't arrest anyone for the next few months??? I mean, it's not like Harris County is trying to keep crooks in jail, so why not send the cops home too?

Murray Newman said...

Anon 9:12 p.m.,

I think the police departments should follow the same protocols that they follow when a hurricane is rolling in. Make the arrests on the big stuff and save a warrant for later on the small stuff. It's a pain in the ass, but all of this is going to be a huge pain in the ass.


As I told another lawyer who was lamenting about why the court system seems to be way behind the times on this: "don't you know, every judge's gravestone has etched on it the amount of cases they closed."

Anonymous said...

Just wait until the virus hits the jails. Unfortunately, from the top down, it has all been reactive. I guess everyone expected a coherent response from the federal government like SARS, Ebola, etc. and forgot we have a clown for pres that slashed the CDC, ignoring warnings from his own people about the risk of an outbreak just like this.

Really, it just highlights how fragile our systems are and why we need major reforms in health, childcare, and employee protection. When Trump’s obsession with a number go up stock market ends in him cratering it, maybe people will wake up a bit. But since it looks like the Dems are picking a guy who is basically a Republican and has supported the banks, mass incarceration, and cutting what little benefits we have, I am not hopeful. We keep voting against our interests and just blame each other. Complain about struggling Americans getting anything and bail out the billionaires.

Carl R Pruett said...

District court judges meeting at 8:15 am today, 3-12

Thorhees21 said...

Anon. 6:27 - The CDC budget has not been cut. In September 2019, Trump proposed a budget for 2021 that included cuts for chronic disease, however there has been no budget put forth or voted on by Congress (just like the last several years) so no, the CDC budget has not been "slashed."

Anonymous said...

Don’t let facts get in the way...

Tom said...

As to your point 5, pay lawyers when they do the work. Not long ago, I got in discovery the clerk's file in a CPS termination case that had morphed into a criminal case.
In the CPS case, the appointed lawyers -- the father's lawyer, the mother's lawyer and the ad litem -- submitted a voucher after every court appearance.
I guess we're expected to carry the county while civil lawyer are entitled to be paid when they do the work.

Anonymous said...

Ahhhhh, nice to know our president is taking this seriously. I feel so safe with him at the helm.

Anonymous said...

ummmm how about attorneys who didn't get paid today due to a new vendor taking over the Direct Deposit contract? How ya'll feeling about that, comrades?

Lee said...

Best advice for the cops is to PICK YOUR BATTLES!

Anonymous said...

We missed an opportunity after Harvey to change the way we do things.

For bond cases, Harris is one of the few counties that have us all trekking into downtown once a month when most of the evidence for cases is not in for a decision for 8 or 9 months sometimes.

It is great to be able to sit face to face with a prosecutor who likely has no idea what is going on with your case for 5 minutes while 7 attorneys looking for resets are lined up behind you, staring a hole through the back of your head. It is 2020. E-mail them. The portal has a link to the case prosecutor's email.

Then, issues and concerns and requests are actual part of the case file, written down and preserved.

If it is just making sure the cases are moving, the discovery portal has a log. You can see how many times the defense counsel has accessed the log and use it to make a decision if we ask for a continuance.

At this point, all we are doing is bond compliance.

And the choice to close portions of the civil caseload and not criminal caseload is just a continuation of how the county views those unfortunate enough to land on the criminal dockets.


Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

And meanwhile other county offices are open while the County Judge is asking the private sector to telework... Talking out of both sides of her mouth...

Anonymous said...

For the most part, if you are a prosecutor, court staff or defense counsel, you are still going to have to trek downtown exposing yourselves and your families to illness, because of...?

Is this going like a couple years ago in a major freeze when every court was closed except Debra Ibarra Mayfield who didn't show up herself?

Attorney said...

"We missed an opportunity after Harvey to change the way we do things"

Look on the bright side: This virus will present us with another opportunity to change things, and when we completely fail to do that you'll forget about the missed opportunity Harvey gave us.

Anonymous said...

Anon March 12, 2020 at 6:27 AM: "When Trump’s obsession with a number go up stock market ends in him cratering it, maybe people will wake up a bit."

Yet the Dow Jones plummeted after Obama took office to ~7000 and under Trump has risen to almost 30,000, recent market corrections already correcting themselves with record gains not seem since the Bush administration. These trends are mirrored by every other indicator gauging markets but partisan hacks will jump on the slightest decrease and refuse to acknowledge the bigger picture. In terms of actual health related matters, flu deaths under both Obama and Trump have averaged out about the same despite the imaginary cuts you believe happened and neither administration responded markedly different to whatever crises popped up.

Murray's advice is sound and hopefully some of the hacks listen to him and others applying commonsense to this situation. There is no need to politicize this outbreak although I accept some of the extremists will always feel the need to just that in their failed attempts at character assassination.

Anonymous said...

Um, I had swine flu (H1N1) in 2010 in Houston when I was pregnant. Pregnant women were dying left and right, so when I found out, I thought it was a death sentence. Lucky for me it wasn't. However, before I found out I was sick with it, I gave it to a friend with an autoimmune disorder. That made me feel like a jerk, even though I passed it on before I had symptoms. Anyway, I just want to clarify Houston has had health crisis before and no one has reacted like they have with coronavirus.

Anonymous said...

So the county has closed bars and restaurants, but yet they are requiring their employees to come to work where they are in close proximity to others. Why isn’t Harris County telling their employees to work from home? Hypocrisy? Lack of leadership?

Anonymous said...

RUMOR: Is Harris County going on “lockdown” due to the Coronavirus?

False. It is important that residents understand that local officials are not putting areas under “lockdown” or ordering businesses to close. Residents should continue to be vigilant, and take reasonable steps to help prevent the spread of the virus by taking common sense steps provided by trusted sources. Current guidance for communities strongly discourages events or gatherings greater than 250 people. Official community guidelines have also been issued and are available by visiting ReadyHarris or


Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced new restrictions for bars and restaurants that will remain in effect for the rest of March in an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19.

The county has mandated that all bars and nightclubs will be closed until the end of March.