Photo: Marie D. De Jesus, Staff
Houston’s lawyers and judges compared it to the first day of college, with people looking for their courtrooms – which were spread out across at least five county buildings, like classrooms scattered across a small campus.
One well-respected defense attorney misread the schedule and showed up at the right courtroom but at the wrong time, arriving four hours early to his 1 p.m. docket call.
The snags on Monday came as Harris County’s courts reopened after being closed since Aug. 28 when Harvey rolled in with record flooding.
Like the highways coming back to life, the 600,000 Houston-area students returning to school this week and Texans fans gnashing teeth over quarterback troubles, court officials worked to get things back to “normal.”
“The community is still trying to recover from the storm, and I think we’re doing a pretty good job in that regard,” said Judge Bob Schaffer, the administrative judge helping to oversee the transition. “But this is going to be six to nine, maybe 12 months, and I’m sure that at some time, feelings will get frayed, all the way around.”
Schaffer and other officials dispersing handouts of court locations were happy there was not a crush of people lining up around the corner to get in the civil courthouse at 201 Caroline, catty-corner to the nearly deserted criminal courthouse.
At 9 a.m. the first-floor lobby of the civil courthouse was stacked with lawyers and defendants waiting in long lines to get on one of the four working elevators that could take them above the eighth floor.
“I expected traffic out the door this morning, and it didn’t happen,” he said. “You saw the crowds outside of the elevators, but it’s going to be like that for a while. Seventeen courts just moved into our building with all the traffic that that brings, and we’re dealing with it as best as we can.”
He said he hoped to see all of the elevators working soon.
As for the the prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and defendants waiting to go up, he said, they seemed to be patient in the face of a confusing time.
Staci Biggar, a defense lawyer, made a 9 a.m. docket call on the upper floors of the civil courthouse before heading a block away to misdemeanor courts in the Family Law Courthouse at 1115 Congress. Biggar tried to look on the bright side.
“At least I’m going to get in my 10,000 steps today,” she said.
She also planned a stop at the jail at 49 San Jacinto to see a client, for a total of four courts in three buildings.
Some lawyers also had court in the Juvenile Justice Center at 1200 Congress or inside the Baker Street jail.
Harvey’s floodwaters damaged several buildings in the courthouse complex, which is spread across a dozen city blocks in north downtown. The county’s shiny new underground jury assembly building flooded, but the biggest casualty was probably the destruction that has closed the 20-story criminal justice center for at least nine months. The loss is immense because the building housed the entire district attorney’s office, an agency of 330 lawyers and almost 400 staffers, the public defender’s office and 40 courtrooms, staffed with clerks, coordinators, court reporters and others.
Courts doubling up
The reason it is such a hardship to relocate is because each of those courtrooms had holding cells and access to private elevators so inmates could be brought securely from the Harris County Jail across Buffalo Bayou, in bridges and tunnels, without any contact with the public.
With the loss of that building, the county’s 22 felony courts have doubled up in courtrooms in the civil courthouse, pushing the civil, family and probate courts together. The county’s 16 misdemeanor courts have been shoehorned into the almost abandoned family law courthouse. The prosecutors in the district attorney’s office are still being situated in county office space in several buildings, some as far away as the West Loop.
On Monday, defendants free on bail had to find the new location of their court and the time of their docket.
One defendant, who refused to give his name, said he was told to be at court at 9 a.m. only to arrive and learn his docket call would be at 1 p.m.
“I’m missing work,” he said. “They want me to pay this money, but how can I when I’m missing work?”
Since there are few if any holding cells in the relocated courts, the people in jail are expected to appear in jailhouse courtrooms with revolving dockets. The very few holding cells will likely be reserved for trials when jury selection resumes Sept. 25.
‘Better than I expected’
Harris County District Clerk Chris Daniel was also on hand to oversee how the new system was working.
“The biggest hiccup seems to be the elevators, with long delays in getting elevators to the upper floors,” he said. “For the most part, everyone has been patient with a wait-and-see attitude.”
He said jury service is canceled through Sept. 22, so people with jury summonses don’t have to come.
Eric Davis, the felony trial division chief for the Harris County Public Defender’s Office, said jury selection will be the next big hurdle.
Felony courts need 60 to 65 people in a jury panel to get a jury of 12, he said.
When half of the felony courts are trying to pick a jury, a pool of at least 715 people have to come in for jury duty. That usually happens on Mondays and Fridays, he said. Add to that jury panels for misdemeanor, family and civil courts, and the numbers grow fast.
“So, you need at least 2,000 to 3,000 people coming down for jury duty a week and to handle that volume of people, you need space to do it,” Davis said. “There’s no jury assembly building right now.”
Although there are no new juries, there is at least one that is still working.
Defense attorney Woodrow Dixon said he believes his jury was on the verge of acquitting his client of sexual assault when they were sent home on Aug. 24 after deliberating more than three hours.
That jury, which is expected to return Tuesday to continue deliberating, has been out for more than two weeks because of the storm.
“I think I won,” Dixon said. “I figure if they come back guilty, at least I have a reason to file for a new trial.”
As Monday’s dockets thinned mid-morning, veteran defense lawyers gathered in front of their adopted courthouse for a smoke and assessed the situation.
“It went a lot better than I expected,” lawyer Brian Coyne said about moving the courts out of the criminal courthouse for the next year. “They’ve never seen the amount of people that they’re going to see in this courthouse. I think the inconvenience this causes the civil court judges should goad them into spurring the commissioners into fixing that building a lot quicker than they’re projecting.”