FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Mark Thiessen, HCCLA President
(713) 864-9000 or Mark Thiessen
JUDGES RISK SPREADING PANDEMIC
May 27, 2020 – Houston, Texas – The Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association (“HCCLA”) is the largest local criminal defense bar in the United States, with more than 700 active members engaged in defense of citizens accused of criminal acts. HCCLA has, for 50 years, stood for criminal justice, criminal justice reform, and against government and judicial overreach.
Since March 2020, Harris County and the State of Texas have been under a state of emergency. In fact, Texas Governor Greg Abbott has declared all 254 Texas counties to be in a state of disaster caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic. In response, and in an effort to ensure the safety of judges, jurors, court staff, officers, the criminally accused, and attorneys, HCCLA board members and officers have worked tirelessly alongside numerous high ranking members of virtually every government agency in Harris County. Thanks to the unprecedented cooperation between all entities involved, this partnership implemented a system to maintain the Harris County criminal justice system, while ensuring the health and safety of the citizens remain a top priority in these historic times.
On Tuesday, May 26, 2020, a large crowd was required by certain judges to appear in the Harris County Criminal Justice Center (HCCJC). Large lines of presumptively innocent people formed in front of the HCCJC, leading to these same individuals being forced to wait in the HCCJC hallways, where there can be no effective social distancing. This is in direct violation of the county engineer’s orders for the number of persons to be present in the HCCJC at any given time.
In further violation of the county engineer’s order, Harris County Judge Lina Hildago’s orders, the Texas Supreme Court’s orders, the Office of Court Administration’s directives, and Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s orders, social distancing was neither required nor enforced. Consequently, the lives of these human beings – and HCCJC staff – were wantonly and unnecessarily put at risk. People in this great nation, this fine state, and the largest county in Texas, are still dying from COVID-19 at alarming rates. Per media reports, no less than 6 lives connected to the HCCJC have been lost – be they jailers or inmates awaiting resolution of their cases – with many more having suffered infection from this debilitating, fatal disease. HCCLA is aware of reports even one judge has fallen to COVID-19.
HCCLA strongly condemns these unwarranted and reckless court actions that endanger the lives of the presumptively innocent accused, HCCJC staff, and our members. It is not lost on HCCLA that the very persons elected to follow the law, ensure dignity, and preserve constitutional rights are threatening the very same in the name of expediency and hubris.
HCCLA will vigorously oppose any court action by a judicial officer risking the lives of the accused, the defense bar, or HCCJC staff. HCCLA calls on all courts to act in a responsible and humane fashion.
Unless and until these orders are modified or rescinded, HCCLA demands the judiciary comply, as the Harris County population must. There are to be no in-person court appearances required on non-essential matters until such time as the medical community has deemed the threat of COVID-19 to have either passed or significantly diminished. These are the orders the judiciary shall obey. The health and safety of the community is not a negotiable matter.