The Midterms Trigger a Seismic Shift in Harris County’s Courts

Among the Democrats who won all 59 judicial seats at play in the midterms: a socialist and 19 black women running on criminal justice reform.

The Harris County Criminal Justice Center.
The Harris County Criminal Justice Center. Stephen Paulsen

The Democratic sweep in Harris County Tuesday night could remake one of the largest criminal justice systems in the country.

When the blue wave crashed into Houston, it not only unseated a widely popular Republican county executive and a much-maligned elections chief, but also ushered Democrats into all 59 judicial seats at play in the midterms. That includes at least one socialist judge and the “black girl magic” slate of 19 black women running for various benches on a criminal justice reform platform, making Tuesday night the single biggest victory for black women in Harris County’s history.  

The midterm results could also dramatically alter the long-standing battle between Harris County and civil rights groups suing for comprehensive bail reform in a jurisdiction with a population greater than 25 states. On Tuesday, Democrats unseated all the remaining Republican misdemeanor court judges who have spent more than $6 million in taxpayer money appealing a federal court ruling that declared the county’s bail practices discriminatory and unconstitutional.

Elizabeth Rossi is an attorney with Civil Rights Corps, a group that sued Harris County in 2016 on behalf of a young mother arrested for driving with an invalid license and jailed for two days because she couldn’t afford $2,500 bail. Rossi is optimistic the incoming judges will take a different approach. “We’re looking forward to seeing judges with fresh perspectives and a commitment to justice and equality take the bench and generate meaningful change in Harris County,” Rossi wrote in an email.

Tuesday’s election also ended the reign of juvenile court judges who, according to a recent Houston Chronicle investigation, accounted for more than one-fifth of all children sent to the state’s juvenile prisons last year. On Wednesday, the Chronicle reported that one of them, Judge Glenn Devlin, responded to the Democratic sweep by showing up to a morning detention docket and releasing nearly all the young defendants who appeared before him, saying that’s what the voters wanted and asking only whether they planned to kill anyone.

There were unfortunate casualties of the wave, like Marc Carter, a Republican felony court judge who pioneered Harris County’s diversion court for veterans. Carter lost to Frank Aguilar, a former magistrate who barely campaigned and who in 2010 was charged with assaulting a woman he was dating, but was ultimately acquitted. The wave also took out Mike Fields, the only Republican misdemeanor court judge in Harris County who refused to fight the bail lawsuit. On Wednesday, the Chronicle’s editorial board lamented the losses, blaming them on straight-ticket voting, which is set to end in Texas before the 2020 election.

Harris County wasn’t the only jurisdiction in Texas that saw a significant shift in its criminal justice system Tuesday night. In district attorney races in Dallas and Bexar counties, voters elected Democratic challengers who called for bail reform and vowed to reduce mass incarceration.

beto, houston
Rodney Ellis, a Harris County commissioner.  Justin Miller

Advocates for criminal justice reform also expect more progress from the Harris County Commissioners Court, which Democrats seized control of in Tuesday’s election. Jay Jenkins, a policy attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, said the court’s new makeup could spell major changes for the county’s criminal justice system. Former state Senator Rodney Ellis, the court’s only Democratic member before Tuesday’s election, has advocated reforms and compared the bail lawsuit’s potential impact to that of Brown v. Board of Education. Now he’ll have colleagues championing those ideas, too. “I can see Commissioner Ellis really aggressively pushing the court to make the system more equal and just,” Jenkins told the Observer.

Franklin Bynum, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America who won his misdemeanor court race on Tuesday night, called the scope and depth of the change coming to Harris County’s criminal justice system unprecedented.

“It’s a whole new day,” he told the Observer. As a former public defender, Bynum said, he routinely saw judges railroad poor clients into convictions that only drove them further into a cycle of poverty and re-incarceration.

“So many people have been churned through the courts without their basic constitutional protections,” Bynum said. “Once we start applying basic due process, this assembly line system of justice will finally start to fall apart.”

Michael Barajas is a staff writer covering civil rights for the Observer. You can reach him on Twitter or at [email protected].

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Published at 11:43 am CST
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