Montgomery County District Judge Frederick Edwards improperly sentenced a father to 180 days in jail for failure to pay child support, Ninth District appeals judges decided on Jan. 14.
Chief Justice Steve McKeithen and Justices David Gaultney and Hollis Horton freed Jack Edward Broughton with 99 days left on his sentence.
"We hold that the judgment and orders in the instant case violate due process," they wrote.
Broughton was taken into custody on Aug. 12. He had failed all year to pay $1,500 a month to Laura Barrilleaux.
On that date Edwards wrote, "Deft taken into custody for contempt of court regarding non-payment of child support, order to follow."
On Aug. 20, he signed a contempt judgment committing Broughton to jail.
Broughton paid Barrilleaux $12,000 on Aug. 31, and Edwards released him on bond.
Broughton fell behind in his payments again and was taken into custody on Nov. 13.
Edwards revoked his release on Nov. 30.
For Broughton, John Choate Jr. filed a habeas corpus petition at the Ninth District.
At oral argument on Dec. 18, Choate urged the justices to void the contempt judgment and the revocation order due to the unreasonable delays in signing them.
For Barrilleaux, Duane Conley argued that setting a deadline for a detailed order would be bad public policy.
That didn't sway the Justices. They wrote that Barrilleaux didn't explain the delays or support an argument that the delays didn't prejudice Broughton's rights.
"Broughton suffered a restraint on his liberty during the period of time between the oral pronouncement and the written judgment," they wrote.
They cited two precedents holding that a judgment signed on a Monday was ineffective to confine a contempt defendant taken into custody the previous Friday.
They quoted a Texas Supreme Court decision from 1997 holding that, "Due process requires a court, before imprisoning a person for violating an earlier order, to sign a written judgment or order of contempt and a written commitment order."