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Bexar District Judge Deals Defeat To Gov. Abbott On Jail Releases

Gabriel C. Pérez

A state district judge has dealt one of the most expansive defeats to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott over his emergency powers related to law and order.

Judge Ron Rangel of the 379th district court ruled that the governor had exceeded his authority and violated the Texas Constitution when he enacted his executive order known as GA-13.

“This court concludes that EO-GA-13 is wholly unconstitutional and is thus unenforceable,” wrote Rangel in his decision Monday.

Using emergency powers granted to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, Abbott — through GA-13 — suspended laws regarding who could be released from jail and when. The order barred anyone from being released from municipal or county jails who had previously been convicted of physical violence or the threat of physical violence without paying a cash bond. It also suspended jailers’ ability to commute jail terms for good behavior for those same people.

The governor said he signed the order in March 2020 as several counties were considering “broad-scale release of arrested or jailed individuals as a result of COVID-19.”

At the time many jails were trying to reduce the spread in facilities. As of November 2020, more than 231 people had died from COVID-19 in Texas prisons and jails,at a 35% higher rate than the rest of the U.S. prison population.

In the case decided Monday, Janie Villeda, who pled “no contest” to simple assault in June of 2019 and received a sentence of one year in Bexar County Jail. She had enough time to be released on June 23, 2021, for good behavior but was barred from release by GA-13.

In an unusual move, Villeda was released on a $1 bond on June 24. The ruling also included a notice to the Texas Attorney General’s office that the constitutionality of executive order would be considered. Despite the notice, the AG’s office offered no defense of the executive order.

“The court concludes the Governor lacks authority under the Texas Disaster Act, or any other law, to suspend articles within the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure,” read the ruling that said that power was reserved for legislature.

“The ruling by Judge Rangel restores the provisions of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure that Governor Abbott unconstitutionally tried to suspend”, said Michael Young, Bexar County Chief Public Defender in a statement.

According to the Bexar County Sheriff’s office, the 17-month-old order has led to increased overtime. It has also likely led to increased transmission of COVID-19. In late June, the sheriff estimated there could be hundreds of other people eligible for release as a result.

The sheriff’s office had not responded to a request for comment by the time of publication.

Monday’s ruling gives judges and jailers across the state the power they had prior to the governor’s order.

Rangel — speaking to TPR — expressed many reservations about the language of the order as well. He said how violence is defined is very broad and can include any number of misdemeanor crimes.

“There are hundreds of people all across the state, probably thousands who could be out right now but aren’t because of the Governor’s executive order,” said Nathan Fennell, Texas Fair Defense Project — which was a party to the Villeda case.

Harris County judges sued Abbott over the order in April 2020, but the Texas Supreme Court found they lacked standing.

Some county courts and jails have either found the order unconstitutional or ignored it outright. The system, however, is not uniform across the state.

Fennell said he hopes today’s ruling helps starts to fix that.

“Judges in Bexar County and throughout the state should be following Judge Rangel’s lead, and that of other judges before him, in invalidating GA-13 in all its applications,” he said.

It isn’t clear if the decision will be appealed. The governor is currently fighting with local governments over his ability to suspend local health laws under the Texas Disaster Act.

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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org