COVID-19 cases among Texas inmates rise as Abbott wins court battle to restrict releases

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The number of Texas inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19 reached 294 on Thursday, according to the latest Texas Commission on Jail Standards data. The same data shows that 4,818 inmates are currently quarantined or isolated because they came in contact with someone who tested positive, including jailers, 168 of which have tested positive for the virus statewide.

The number of confirmed cases among Texas inmates is almost 80 more than the number reported on Monday. The vast majority of those who have tested positive are jailed within Dallas and Harris County.

The growing number of cases comes as the Texas Supreme Court on Thursday sided with Gov. Greg Abbott in restricting the release of inmates during the pandemic.

In recent weeks, jails across the country have seen thousands of inmates released as local officials fear conditions within jails don’t allow for social distancing measures or adequate care for patients.

Earlier this month, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo joined officials in New Jersey, California, and New York by ordering the release of low-risk inmates. Days earlier, Abbott preempted Hidalgo’s order with an executive order blocking the release of inmates who hadn’t paid bail and were accused or previously convicted of violent crimes. 

Shortly after, a state district judge in Travis County temporarily blocked Abbott’s order, arguing that it was an overreach of his office. The Texas Supreme Court on Thursday sided with Abbott on a somewhat technical argument, ruling that all 16 of Harris County’s misdemeanor court judges who brought the lawsuit had no legal standing to do so. 

“The question of 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 ruling read. 

Despite a victory lap by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton following the decision (Paxton himself once posted bail for $35,000 after being arrested on three felony charges relating to securities fraud) the ruling by the Texas Supreme Court did not cut to the heart of the issue, and in fact, did not bode well for Abbott.

“The executive branch cannot criminally prosecute judges for deciding cases based on what they understand the law to be,” the opinion read. “We appeal judicial decisions we don’t like; we don’t jail the judges.”

In a statement, Andre Segura, legal director of the ACLU of Texas, just one of the civil rights groups joined in the lawsuit, said the ruling proved that Abbott had overstepped his authority by trying to take over the role of independent judges. 

“The Texas Supreme Court found that neither the Governor nor the AG can enforce this Executive Order, and that prosecuting judges for following the Constitution would raise serious problems,” Segura said. “Abbott should heed the advice from both sides of the aisle and rescind this misguided order.”

Photo: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP via Getty Images

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