Harris County legal bills hit $2.85M as pressure mounts to settle contentious bail lawsuit
As legal costs mount, surpassing $200,000 per month, pressure is building for Harris County officials to settle a lawsuit over the county’s cash bail system that a federal judge has ruled unconstitutional.
Newly available documents reveal that teams of defense lawyers are racking up massive ongoing expenses, including one lawyer on retainer since June at $610 per hour and a Washington, D.C. appellate lawyer on board since mid-April at $550 per hour.
Among the two dozen county officials named as defendants in the civil suit, one is fed up.
“It’s time to settle,” said Criminal Court at Law Judge Darrell Jordan. “What are we fighting for?”
A settlement offer remains on the table from lawyers representing poor people stuck in jail for misdemeanor offenses because they could not afford cash bail. But none of the other defendants in the suit has budged, according to attorney Neal Manne, whose firm donated its services in filing the suit with two civil rights organizations.
First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said Friday he anticipates his office will have a recommendation for the Commissioners Court meeting Tuesday morning. Discussion of the case is included on the Commissioners Court agenda, with possible action to follow.
As of Friday, however, the county has been billed about $2.85 million by outside counsel – a cost the county attorney’s office says is not out of line given the number of defendants and a local criminal justice system that is one of the largest in the nation.
“Harris County spends about $1.1 billion per year on criminal justice, 70 percent of its annual operating budget,” Soard said.
At least 22 attorneys plus support staff are now working on the case, including 10 in the county attorney’s office and at least 12 from outside law firms, Soard said. Three firms have been hired to help with the case – Gardere Wynne Sewell, Winston Strawn, and Cooper Kirk – with each submitting their own itemized bills for transcripts, hourly work and other costs.
Two civil rights groups are handling the case – Texas Fair Defense Project and Civil Rights Corps – with local law firm Susman Godfrey on behalf of Maranda ODonnell, a single mother who was held for two days on a charge of driving without a valid license because she couldn’t afford the $2,500 bail. Similar lawsuits involving two other people were merged into the case in August.
Last week, Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal ruled the county’s bail system is unconstitutional because it keeps indigent people locked up on misdemeanors because they can’t post bail, while people facing similar charges can walk free if they have the money.
Rosenthal has ordered county officials to begin releasing indigent misdemeanor inmates starting May 15 on personal bonds without requiring cash bail, if suspects do not have other outstanding charges or warrants. She also granted the case class-action status, meaning it applies to all misdemeanor inmates who might be eligible for personal bonds.
Legal bills submitted to the county for August 2016 show the biggest strain on the county’s pocketbook was the hourly fees for attorneys representing the county, sheriff, 16 criminal court at law judges and hearing officers, who are the first to see a person after an arrest.
The county’s legal costs averaged about $237,500 per month in the one year that the case has been active, according to spending figures released by the county attorney.
An attempt to mediate the case over two days in August cost the county thousands of dollars, including $1,200 per day for mediator Leslie Brock Yates, a former appellate judge hired to help the parties reach a settlement.
Mike Stafford, a partner at Gardere, earned $610 an hour. He billed the county more than $28,000 for 46 hours of work that month, part of a $135,745 bill that included work by four other lawyers.
Not all the bills have been paid, however. Gardere hosted the mediation and billed for take-out lunches from the Post Oak Grill on Aug. 16. The total: $558, including salads and sandwiches for 30 and $112 for 30 slices of key lime pie.
The county, however, balked at the bill and it sent it back to the law firm with questions. It has not been resubmitted.
The county’s teams of lawyers occupied two long tables in Rosenthal’s courtroom during a lengthy hearing in March, and now are poring over the judge’s 193-page opinion to decide whether to settle the case or appeal it.
On Friday, Criminal Court at Law Judge Jordan hand-delivered a letter to County Judge Ed Emmett asking that he be allowed to settle the case immediately.
Emmett spokesman Joe Stinebaker explained the office’s response to Jordan’s letter.
“Judge Emmett has no authority whatsoever to allow or prevent any of the defendants in this suit from taking any action they deem appropriate,” he said.
The formalities were of little importance to Jordan, who said it seems obvious the county should settle, given Rosenthal’s comments that the indigent defendants are likely to prevail at trial.
Jordan became a defendant in the year-old suit when he took office in January, and was one of two county officials who took the witness stand during a contentious injunction hearing in March. Newly elected Sheriff Ed Gonzalez also testified about his concerns with the county’s bail system.
Two other newly elected Democrats, District Attorney Kim Ogg and County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, submitted statements to the court in favor of ending a bail system they said unfairly punishes poor defendants.
Ellis applauded Jordan’s letter Friday.
“It’s clearly time to settle and get this case behind us,” Ellis said, “to implement the reforms and move on to other cost-saving measures that will help us protect the public safety of the citizens of Harris County and have more resources to deal with issues like flooding economic development, health care and congestion.”