Our Harris County Criminal Justice Center flooded, again. I count this as three times. The Harvey flood promises to keep us out of our courthouse longer than the other two times combined. It keeps flooding. The county keeps rebuilding. Does this meet the definition of insanity?
Current clients have asked me what effect I believe this will have on their cases. I didn’t know right after Harvey, but I do now.
Harvey has resulted in focusing the attention of Judges and prosecutors on the most important cases. Plea bargain offers have reflected that change in attitude. I am not suggesting that prosecutors are “giving cases away”, but I have noticed that they are not fighting tooth and nail over meaningless non-violent offenses any more. This is an attitude they should have had before we were tearing out drywall and throwing our carpets out in the yard.
I have observed camaraderie between prosecutors, defense attorneys and Judges that didn’t exist prior to Harvey. There is this feeling that we are all in this together, precipitated by the hodge-podge number of uncomfortable court locations we are forced to attend.
Court for cases involving male clients who are in custody take place in the basement of the jail. There is a Mad Max feel to the process as you are escorted down the tunnel by a Sheriff’s Deputy and into the restricted elevator. Once in the basement, you take a right turn into the bowels of the jail and into one of several rooms reserved for the courts. All lighting comes from 50’s era fluorescent panels.
Two courts are typically present. The makeshift Judge’s bench is a long fold out table, similar to what you might buy at Costco for the family picnic. The table holds the clerks and coordinator as well, everyone sitting shoulder to shoulder. Lawyers, court personnel and inmates mingle awkwardly together like they are attending a high school social. Some prosecutors and many defense attorneys wear jeans. Some of the prosecutors wear masks.
In order to fulfill the constitutional requirement of public courts, a video camera points towards the front of the “bench” and feeds into a room located on the top floor of the civil courthouse. A large television screen shows two or three moms sitting in the room, silently looking back at you, fervently searching for a view of a particular loved one. Every now and again your eyes night meet.
Jail docket is ridiculous and amusing. At least it is the first time. Then it becomes aggravating. Finally, it is troubling. No privacy exists between client and lawyer, since the Judge and prosecutor are in the same room, sometimes 10 feet away. Claustrophobia sets in.
Prosecutors seem to understand the difficult position in which defense attorneys are placed. For our part, we appreciate how difficult this is on the Judges and prosecutors. The Judges are used to having a measure of separation from the defendants. Prior to Harvey, they had their chambers to retire to when things get particularly hectic or just needed to pee. At jail docket, they are trapped at the table. Prosecutors lost their offices to Harvey, so must drive from county annex offices in the Galleria area, placing their files in the trunk of their cars, fighting traffic and looking for parking near the jail. It just really sucks for everybody. Commiserating creates camaraderie.
Dockets for clients on bond aren’t much better. The county courts, where misdemeanors are tried, have been moved to the infamous Family Court building, where several family Judges had complained that the building caused respiratory problems and cancer. The building had been partially abandoned after the Family Courts moved to the new and pristine Civil Courts building. It was resurrected for the County Criminal Courts.
The building has a submarine feel. The halls are about 5 feet wide. The stairs are about 4 feet wide. The courtrooms are about half the size of the same courts in the injured Criminal Courthouse. Two criminal courts share the same courtroom, with one docket starting at 9am and another two hours later. To call the environment cramped would be like calling Kate Upton kind of attractive. Let me put it this way – it’s not majestic.
The District Courts are doing much better. They are ensconced in the aforementioned pristine Civil Courts building. Although two courts must share the courtroom, the interior is so luxurious, hardly anyone is complaining. Just not seeing head marks on the back walls of the jury box is breathtaking. It is the civil judges and personnel who seem to be having the worst of it. When I see them in the elevator, they look like private school students whose Dad lost their job and made them go public.
In the aftermath of Harvey, the Civil Judges judicially welcomed their Criminal counterparts with open arms and hearts. They agreed to share their courtrooms. Now, every morning it looks like hordes from the east are invading the gates of Rome. Prior to the flood, the Civil Courthouse had fortuitously begun renovating half their elevators, so the lines to get upstairs are now cumbersome. Every now and again I see a cadre of civil lawyers waiting to get into a crowded elevator, with their boxes of well-manicured exhibits and dark suits. They look around nervously, repetitively checking the pocket where their wallets are housed. In the elevator, they look down at their shoes like Idaho tourists in the New York subway.
So what does this all mean for my clients? Things are topsy-turvy. Everybody is uncomfortable. So far, juries are non-existent. It is hard for my clients on bond to figure out when or where to go to court. The times for their court settings change without warning, Prosecutors lose files. Their courtroom location changes. Judges fight with each other.
Everything is entirely and purely human. No setting could be more helpful when I find myself arguing to a prosecutor why my client shouldn’t go to jail for running from the scene of an accident. Humans adapt to emergencies out of their control. We all do.