Galveston County officials and a civil rights group are awaiting a federal judge’s decision about whether the courts should impose more rules about how the county treats people booked into its jail.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew Edison is considering an injunction the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas sought in February. While the two sides have made their arguments for and against the injunction, it’s not clear when exactly Edison will rule on the proposal.

On Tuesday, Edison issued a ordered suspending some deadlines for other aspects of the lawsuit until after he rules on the motion for an injunction.

When it arrives, the decision will be the latest chapter in a lawsuit that has now spent more than a year in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued Galveston County, as well as its local district court judges, magistrates and District Attorney Jack Roady in April 2018, accusing them of overseeing a bail system that favors wealthier defendants while encouraging poorer defendants to either plead guilty or sit in jail.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Aaron Booth, a Galveston man who was arrested on drug charges in April 2018. The civil liberties union argued Booth’s due process rights were violated because he did not see an attorney before his bail hearing and did not receive a hearing on his ability to pay bail.

While the county and the courts have changed some aspects of the system since the civil liberties union first raised its concerns, including instituting a financial review process and hiring more magistrate judges to process more people through the pretrial hearing system more quickly, the civil rights group has pushed for more reforms.

In February, the ACLU proposed a preliminary injunction that would require the county to provide people booked into the county jail with an attorney at their first hearing before a magistrate. The injunction also would compel the county to keep detailed records about how long it took to appoint a defense attorney and why individual bail decisions were made.

The group argued that the proposal adds more accountability to the bail system.

“This lawsuit seeks something very basic: a fair process for determining whether to lock people in jail,” said Trisha Trigilio, a senior attorney for the civil liberties union. “That means a prompt hearing, with a defense lawyer who understands the system, and a judge who writes down reasons why they decide to jail people.”

Attorneys representing Galveston County’s district court judges argued in a court filing the defendants aren’t entitled legal representation during the earliest stages of the court process, like when bail is being decided on.

Bail hearings are not a “critical stage,” in the justice process, the attorneys wrote.

“Nothing during that appearance initiates adversary judicial proceedings, nor is any of it a critical stage of criminal proceedings,” attorneys wrote.

Roady filed a similar argument on the same day as the judges.

Notably, Galveston County’s attorneys have not filed a motion opposing the preliminary injunction.

Paul Ready, Galveston County’s general counsel, said Tuesday there has been no indication when Edison would rule on the injunction. While the county waits, officials have continued to make changes to the bail system.

A coordinating council formed by the county to make changes to the bail system has created workgroups to study information technology and mental health issues and the county has created a new position, a director of the personal bond office, to help develop a better risk assessment procedure for people being processed through the jail, Ready said.

“Whether or not a lawsuit is in the background, there is strong momentum for making Galveston’s justice system as great as it can be, maximizing public safety and minimizing the public expense and burden of keeping people in jail before trial,” Ready said.

While the parties await on Edison’s decision on the injunction, they’re also preparing arguments for another facet of the case: whether it should be a class-action lawsuit.

In March, Edison issued a recommendation for the lawsuit to represent not only Booth, but all people who are or will be detained at the jail on felony charges. The order was later adopted by U.S. District Court Judge George C. Hanks.

No other defendants have been added to the lawsuit as of Tuesday, according to court records. The county, judges and Roady have all appealed the class certification ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

John Wayne Ferguson: 409-683-5226; or on Twitter @johnwferguson.


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