Harris County’s sixteen county criminal court (misdemeanor) judges have spent millions of taxpayer dollars defending, in federal court, their systematic denial of personal-recognizance bonds to indigent defendants.
They probably should have settled. For now the plot thichens: the U.S. District Judge hearing the case, Lee Rosenthal, has ordered all sixteen judges to hie themselves into her courtroom next Tuesday afternoon to answer some questions the plaintiffs have asked about the judges’ truthfulness to the court.
The questions were raised by three hearing officers’ testimony before the State Commission for Judicial Conduct this month. One of the hearing officers,
[Eric] Hagstette, for example, told the commission he and his colleagues “didn’t write the policies, but we had to follow them,” adding: “Could I do something? Probably by law, I could have. I don’t know if it would have been good for my career.”
Hagstette used, I think, to have a decent reputation. Now? Holy cow.1
The judges who hire hearing officers (there are four others besides Hagstette; two of them, Jill Wallace and Joe Licata III, were admonished along with Hagstette by the Commission for Judicial Conduct) are elected every four years in partisan elections, fifteen of them together in non-Presidential-election years. Odds are pretty darn good that fifteen of them2 are going to be off the bench twelve months from now, mostly with little prospect for paying work.
Few of those judges should have remained on the bench as long as they have and, absent partisan elections and straight-ticket voting, even fewer would have. Straight-ticket partisan voting, especially on the Republican side with the Harris County Republican Party’s pay-to-play primaries, does not select for wisdom or any other virtue. Being a Harris County criminal-court judge is not meant to be a career. Nor is being a hearing officer, hired by those judges.
“Could you have done something?” Eric? Sure you could have.
Yeah, but should you have done something? You bet. Every man needs a code to live by, and if “do the right thing” is not axiomatic, you’ve failed already.3
Would doing the right thing have been good for your career, Eric? Better in the long run, I’m betting, than choosing to do the wrong thing and, when busted, invoking the unlawful orders of your superior officers.
Better for your soul, too, if you believe in that sort of thing. How many lost jobs, how many broken families, how much human misery are you accountable for because your betters told you not to follow the law? Good luck working off that karmic load, if you believe in that sort of thing.
And those superiors? I count a couple as friends and several as non-hostile acquaintances, and all of them (bar Jordan) should be ashamed of themselves, however this case comes out in the Fifth Circuit, for spending so much of other people’s money to keep poor people in jail (where they are more likely to plead guilty to things they didn’t do, just to get out).
English is poorer for lack of a word equivalent to the Spanish pendejo or the Yiddish schmuck. ↩
All but Darrell Jordan of County Criminal Court at Law Sixteen, coincidentally the only Democrat in the crowd and “the only judge who backed the indigent defendants’ bail challenge.” ↩
If you have to fall back on orders in justification, that’s a pretty good sign that you know you were doing the wrong thing. ↩