HOUSTON, Texas — A legal battle continues in Texas's Harris County to determine whether or not defendants will be released from the Harris County Jail due to concerns of a COVID-19 outbreak.
A district court judge issued an order earlier today halting any such release.
On Tuesday, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo signed an emergency order calling for the release 1,000 defendants, described as "non-violent," from the Harris County Jail — which houses nearly 8,000 inmates.
Hidalgo, in calling the jail a "ticking time bomb" for a COVID-19 outbreak, said the order would only apply to non-violent defendants who do not have convictions for violent crimes or threats of violence, residential burglary, DWI third or more, or pending or active restraining orders.
On Friday, seven inmates had been released under Hidalgo's emergency order before 337th Criminal District Court Judge Herb Ritchie issued a court order to disregard Hidalgo's directive on the grounds Hidalgo did not have authority or jurisdiction to issue such an order.
"Per a Court Order just received, halting any further inmate releases related to County Judge Hidalgo’s Order," Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez stated on Twitter following the issuance of the latest order. "This is a legal matter and will wait for further information."
"Most of the inmates in the Harris County Jail are defendants charged with felony offenses, whose cases are assigned to one of the 22 Felony District Courts, each of which independently lawfully sit and exercise exclusive jurisdiction in such matters in this County," read, in part, Ritchie's order. "The Felony District Court having jurisdiction over an inmate in the Harris County Jail has properly and lawfully set bail for that defendant's cause of action."
"Any Order issued by the County Judge of Harris County Texas to any Harris County agency, pertaining to bonds and/or release of felony prisoners or probationers assigned to a proper Court of felony jurisdiction is ultra vires, VOID ON ITS FACE and of NO FORCE AND EFFECT," continued the order. "Only the State District Judges of the 22 Felony District Courts of Harris County, Texas have exclusive constitutional and statutory jurisdiction over all felony cases assigned to their respective courts, including, but not limited to, the setting, raising and/or denial of bonds in any and all of said Courts, or the incarceration or release of probationers under supervision from said felony courts."
Ritchie ordered Gonzalez and others involved in the process of release inmates to "ignore and wholly disregard" any order or directive from Hidalgo regarding the issuance of felony pre-trial bonds, personal recognizance bonds, or any other order of release.
The latest order comes as a separate lawsuit wages on in federal court which argues for the release of some 4,000 inmates who cannot afford bail.