The American Civil Liberties Union in a recent letter misrepresented how judges responded to concerns about the county’s legal system, a court at law judge said this week.
County Court at Law No. 3 Judge Jack Ewing disputed some assertions the ACLU made about how accused people are handled in the county legal system and said the civil rights group mischaracterized the response among judges.
A staff attorney for the ACLU had in a Nov. 21 letter to the county called for a more urgent response to addressing concerns about the legal system, most notably the pretrial release system.
In that letter, the attorney had noted judges had been uncooperative in addressing those problems during meetings between the attorney and judges. The ACLU has been communicating with the county for nearly a year about problems identified in the county legal system by various reports.
Ewing took issue with those comments about judges.
“The truth is the judges have been more than accommodating to the ACLU,” Ewing told The Daily News.
Ewing could not attend an initial meeting with the ACLU because he had a schedule conflict, he said. But judges invited the attorney again to a meeting that more judges attended, he said.
“For several hours, the judges discussed along with the ACLU attorney not only the proposals being made by the ACLU, but the changes which had already been made over the past months in response to the ACLU’s concerns,” Ewing said.
In an earlier August letter, Trisha Trigilio, staff attorney for the ACLU, had spelled out some of the reforms with dates for completion, including eliminating pretrial detention for misdemeanor and state jail felony charges by Oct. 2.
In the letter, Trigilio said county officials should collaborate on a detailed plan to provide counsel at magistration and update the ACLU on that plan by Oct. 2, she said.
But those conditions have not yet been met, Trigilio said in a Nov. 21 letter to the county.
“Of course, we are sensitive to delays caused by Hurricane Harvey in late August,” Trigilio said in the Nov. 21 letter. “However, it is critical that we maintain a sense of urgency.”
In a November letter, Trigilio restated the call for people accused of state jail felonies or misdemeanors be released on more affordable bonds.
Trigilio could not be reached by phone Thursday.
Other county court of law judges, John Grady and Barbara Roberts, did not return a phone call Thursday.
Ewing said the judges had been working toward the proposals, although he found some to be unreasonable.
“As the administrative judge for the county courts, I can assure you that every reasonable concern and demand made by the ACLU either has been or is being addressed,” Ewing said.
“Unfortunately, the ACLU has chosen to rely on flawed data in making the overall assessment that somehow the constitutional rights of accused persons are being violated.”
He disputed some of the statements by the ACLU, such as that magistration and appointing of a public attorney for indigent accused persons weren’t happening in a timely matter.
Indigent accused persons who request counsel are appointed legal counsel within 24 hours and have an opportunity to meet with their attorney within a day or two, he said. The ACLU, based on reviews of the county’s legal system, has said some accused persons are held for days before meeting a court-appointed attorney.
Ewing, however, added that some changes had been made just within the past month, including those for indigent counsel and other changes allowing people to pay certain fees over time instead of before being released from jail.
Each county court has a misdemeanor docket of more than 1,000 cases and each court is being assigned about 250 new cases each month, he said.
“We strive hard to make sure that each of these cases are handled as fairly and as expeditiously as possible,” Ewing said.
Other changes, such as recommendations about how to deal with accused persons with mental health issues, could not be addressed immediately, Ewing said.
“We have only a limited number of experts, so those are some issues that really are out of the judges’ hands,” Ewing said.
And one of the primary concerns of the ACLU was one he found unreasonable, he said. The ACLU has requested the county release persons accused of state jail felonies or misdemeanors on a cheaper personal bond, according to documents provided by the county.
“I don’t believe it’s reasonable to say let everyone out on a personal bond that has a state jail felony or below,” Ewing said. “That’s kind of the glitch in our working with them. That’s the biggest concern.”
The ACLU has argued it is unconstitutional to hold people who have been accused but not been convicted of a misdemeanor or state jail felony charge on bonds they cannot afford.