For the first time since Harvey dumped its relentless rains on Houston, the Harris County courts are back up and running Monday — albeit with judges, lawyers and various criminal justice agencies scattered around different buildings, having to share courtrooms and offices. Simply put, local criminal justice officials are about to get a little more cozy than usual.
To understand why the Harris County court system is now undergoing controlled chaos, and why the main courthouse at 1201 Franklin is closed, it's perhaps best to start by explaining how courthouse employees had to escape it.
Like the first responders, the county's criminal justice system staffers still worked 24/7 in spite of Hurricane Harvey — but as the waters continued to rise outside the downtown Criminal Justice Center on the morning of August 27, 21 members of the Harris County District Attorney's Office and a few Harris County District Clerk's Office staffers needed to evacuate. Somehow. The plan was to go to the Harris County Juvenile Justice Center, just a block away. The whole street and the sidewalk were covered in three to four feet of brown Buffalo Bayou water.
According to DA's office spokesman Dane Schiller and Harris County District Clerk Chris Daniel, the prosecutors and support staff had to make their way to the ground floor, pry open the front-door flood gates, climb over them, and then, with the help of law enforcement, grab onto a rope while wading through the waist-to-chest-deep water in single file across Franklin and over to the juvenile justice center.
"What they faced wasn’t so much a question of being swept away, but of stepping into a hole or some other uncertainty beneath the water’s surface," Schiller said via email. "They are not police, deputies, constables or firefighters who risked their lives and saved lives, but they sure answered the bell and quietly went way above and beyond the call of duty to see that our operations never missed a beat."
Soon after the staffers left, the courthouse's main flood doors would fail, bathroom pipes would burst, windows would break and sewage would overtake the basement. In other words, the Criminal Justice Center would be in shambles.
As judges and lawyers get back to work Monday, the 22 district court judges, who handle felony cases, will now hold court in the civil courthouse on Caroline, and the 16 county courts at law judges, who handle misdemeanors, will share courtrooms in the family law courthouse on Preston. As a result, judges in the civil courts, family law courts and probate courts will also need to share in order to make room. "There will be no room for any partisan bickering," Daniel joked, "because we all have to share the same bathrooms, share the same space, the same courtrooms and we'll all have to get along."
Since the Juvenile Justice Center also had flooding problems just after the couple dozen staffers went through all that trouble to get there, the DA's office is now spread across three different locations: in the basement of the Harris County Commissioners Court administration building; at 5900 Canal, which they share with the district clerk's office and the Harris County Precinct 6 Constable; and the Anderson Clayton Building on Prairie.
Daniel, who also has a mechanical engineering degree, said the juvenile building's water chiller froze and the power went out — but the generator wasn't connected to the water chiller. Meaning, once all that frozen a/c water melted, it flooded out the ceiling on the eighth floor—then dripped down to the seventh, sixth and fifth floors. Daniel said that while the Juvenile Justice Center can probably be fixed in a week and a half, it may be six months to a year before the Criminal Justice Center courthouse can reopen.
"Once the water from the bayou reached a certain level in the streets," he said, "there was just no stopping it. It literally came through the front door [of the CJC] and through other parts of the building because it just overwhelmed the flood gates."
Judges have said that defendants who missed a court date over the past two weeks because of Harvey won't have their bonds revoked, but are encouraged to keep checking in with Harris County Pretrial Services or their bondsman. Since Harvey hit, County Court-At-Law Judge Darrell Jordan said, two judges per day have been volunteering to run the jail dockets from 49 San Jacinto to ensure that misdemeanor defendants or those who don't belong in jail aren't stuck while the courts are closed, while those out on bond have just been hanging tight until their next rescheduled court date.
Tucker Graves, president of the Harris County Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said he hoped judges would not be scheduling needless court dates for people simply for check-in purposes, and that, to minimize the burden on everyone, including defendants, they would only ask people to come to court for the most important hearings. (Jordan already does this in his court and said other judges seemed receptive to the idea, but it remains to be seen if all of them will do it.)
"Once a client has appeared with an attorney, the client never has to come back again unless there’s a contested hearing or a plea or a trial," Graves said. "In this time of crisis, people lost their homes, they lost cars, and I don’t see any reason to burden them with needless trips to the courthouse."
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Both Graves and Harris County Chief Public Defender Alex Bunin said they are also worried about a long delay in trials being reset. Bunin said the estimate that trials could be back on track by mid-October seemed a bit too optimistic to him.
Jury duty has been canceled through September 22, and over the next several weeks, Graves said, the DA's office should try to prioritize which cases will be ready to go to trial and which should perhaps be either dismissed or defendants offered plea deals instead.
Besides, juries perhaps wouldn't feel too accommodated anyway: Daniels said the Harris County Jury Plaza — a "glass shack" with stairs leading to various rooms underground — was flooded with 11 feet of water.
Update, 10:15 a.m.: Tom Berg, first assistant at the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, said over the past two weeks prosecutors reviewed 800 state-jail felony cases (mostly drug offenses) and dismissed about 100 of them to relieve pressure on the jail and court system. Monday morning, he said delays were inevitable at the new temporary criminal courtrooms—housed in the civil and family courthouses—as confused defendants scrambled to get to the right court. Berg said prosecutors wouldn’t be seeking bond forfeitures for late people and hoped judges wouldn’t either. He also said the DA’s office supports the defense bar’s request that judges not require defendants to appear in court unless absolutely necessary rather than having them check in every couple weeks, but "so far the courts are not convinced to do that," he said.
At the time he talked to the Houston Press, Berg had been waiting for an elevator for 25 minutes and was still waiting at the end of the call. “It seems like we’re just going to have to muck along until things get smoother," he said. "I’m not sure with these elevators that they ever will.”