County votes to retain new attorney for potential appeal in bail lawsuit

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Harris County commissioners voted Tuesday to retain a well-known attorney in Washington, D.C. to potentially help file appeals in a controversial lawsuit challenging the county’s bail system as unconstitutional and discriminatory.

The attorney, Chuck Cooper, known as a conservative and “confidant” of President Donald Trump’s attorney general Jeff Sessions, was requested by 15 criminal court of law judges to advise them on whether or not to to appeal any decisions in the case and represent them during an appeal, which is currently in limbo in the hands of a federal judge.

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Cooper was briefly considered as a candidate for U.S. Solicitor General earlier this year.

After high-stakes arguments earlier this year over whether poor people should remain in jail on misdemeanor offenses because they can’t afford to post bail, Chief U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal will decide if the current bail system should be suspended until the lawsuit goes to trial.

That decision could be appealed, even before the actual merits of the case are considered.

Cooper would only be legal counsel to the 15 judges, but there are several other parties being sued including another judge, the county sheriff and the county itself. In addition to advice on a potential appeal, Cooper would also help with paper work, and help meet deadlines in case an appeal were to be pursued, said First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard.

Soard said Cooper would not be paid until he is asked to perform work with a potential appeal in the case, which would not be determined until Rosenthal makes her decision.

The lawsuit has become a lightning rod of controversy and tension at the county this year, exposing fractures between a slew of new county officials who are demanding expedited change in the county’s justice system and others who point to steady progress in reforms that they say will fix problems the lawsuit is targeting.

Earlier this year, commissioners approved a pilot program to have public defenders at bail hearings, an effort they said could help reduce the jailing of thousands of defendants. The county is also implementing a new risk assessment tool for hearing officers to better determine whether people can be released prior to trial. Both are expected to go into effect this summer.

Soard said the county has spent approximately $2 million on outside counsel in the bail lawsuit.

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