THE TEXAS TRIBUNE — The Texas Supreme Court ruled in favor of Gov. Greg Abbott’s order restricting jail release during the coronavirus pandemic. But the justices didn’t address the overarching questions of whether the order is unconstitutional or gubernatorial overreach, and instead ruled that the county judges who brought the lawsuit were the wrong ones to challenge the order.
"The question of [the order's] legal effect when weighed against the Constitution and other sources of law is a question for judges to decide when properly asked by parties to do so," the court said in its ruling on the governor's order Thursday.
The final ruling followed the court initially halting a state district judge’s decision to block Abbott’s order earlier this month. The state district judge ruled that the order violated constitutional separation of powers between the executive and judicial branches and went beyond what Abbott is allowed to do in a disaster situation.
Abbott’s order was issued late March as county officials worked to shrink their populations in disease-prone jails as the coronavirus spread throughout the state. It suspends a large swath of law on bail practices and prohibits judges from releasing jail inmates accused or previously convicted of a violent crime without paying bail — banning no-cost, personal bonds which can include conditions like regular check-ins. Under Abbott’s order, those accused of the same crimes and with the same criminal history could still be released from jail if they have access to cash. A no-cost release can still be considered for health or safety reasons after a chance for a hearing is given, though some attorneys said that can take weeks.
Harris County judges and criminal defense organizations sued Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton over the order, claiming it stripped away judicial discretion and that Abbott does not have the right to suspend criminal law during a disaster. State district judge Lora Livingston agreed, and issued a temporary order halting any enforcement of the order against judges.
The next day, the Texas Supreme Court blocked her order, also temporarily, while it reviewed the case. The final ruling Thursday focuses on the judges as plaintiffs, not the main issues raised in the lawsuit.
“We conclude the judges lack standing, which means the trial court lacked jurisdiction to order their requested relief, even temporarily,” the ruling stated.
This story originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.
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