Three Harris County hearing officers were sanctioned for failing to exercise their judicial duties in deciding whether to grant bail to hundreds of people arrested for low level offenses each week, according to disciplinary actions taken by the state’board that oversees Texas judges.
In testimony before the Austin board, the county hearing officers said they had been told by Harris County district judges not to low-cost person bonds or lower bonds, adding they feared they would be fired if they did.
The findings were prompted by a landmark federal court ruling that the county’s bail system was unfair to indigent defendants, and a complaint by state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, that a commission that oversees judicial ethics review the judge’s findings.
Whitmire filed the complaint after a Houston Chronicle story detailed some of the video-tape bail hearing, which showed hearing officers ignoring pleas from defendants for personal bonds.
The State Commission on Judicial Conduct on Wednesday issued “public admonition,” and ordered additional legal education to three of the five hearing officers sued in the federal class action suit.
In three terse 5-page rulings, the commission ordered Criminal Law Hearing Officers Eric Hagstette, Jill Wallace and Joseph Licata to submit to four hours of additional education to be completed within 60 days.
The rulings came after the hearing officers appeared before the commission Dec. 7. Douglas S. Lang, chair of the commission, noted that the three officers felt the criminal court judges didn’t allow them discretion to release people on bond and their jobs were in the balance.