The Defense Bar Remembers Hon. R.H. “Sandy” Bielstein

“I am heartbroken for the loss of a great man and my great friend.  Sandy meant so much to so many of the lawyers and staffers in the Fort Bend Justice Center. He was a mentor to so many, and a friend to all. But he remained special, and occupied a unique spot in my heart.

On my first day as a licensed Texas attorney, a wrong turn brought me to Sandy.  The new judge took me under his wing when I showed up in this new place, with no friends, no guidance, or experience to do the job. He taught me to be a lawyer. He taught me that standing up for justice sometimes meant standing up to fight an unwinnable fight. As a Judge, in both words and actions, he taught me that respecting every person without regard to race, religion, status, or fortune, was the mark of a good attorney, a decent person, and the key to a fair justice system.

 Truly, Sandy was more than a friend. In my times of hardship and illness, he stepped up to help me. When I could barely walk, he stepped up to pull me along. When I was distressed, and thought I could go no further, he was my calming influence to get me through the pain.  He was my counselor, my guide, my leaning post, and the man who encouraged me to be better than I ever dreamed I could be.  I know I will miss his booming voice and smiling face, but I will keep a smile knowing he’s resting in a much better place.

In time, someone will come along and fill his seat, but no one will ever take his place. His words and deeds will be legend, and his professional legacy will live on through us, his mentored.  My family and I, along with the people of Fort Bend, owe a great debt to Sandy, and to his family, for allowing us to share him.

I will forever miss my accidental friend.” O’Neil Williams

 

“Of the things I loved about Sandy, perhaps what I enjoyed the most, was his wry sense of humor. He loved to tease people, giving many of us nick-names, and it was something of a badge of honor to receive one from him because it meant he really liked you. Years ago a mutual friend named Jim suffered the loss of 1/2 of a finger in a shooting accident. Whenever they met, Sandy would smile, hold his hand out flat and say ‘Hey Jim, give me 4 1/2!’   In chambers one day Sandy asked me, ‘Have you seen ‘ole 4 1/2’ lately?’ No name needed. I won’t tell you the nickname he gave to me because it would take too long to explain. But ‘Ole 4 1/2’ and I are going to miss our good friend, and his keen sense of humor.  You were our one of a kind friend, servant of this nation in the USMC, servant of the City of Houston with HPD, and servant of Fort Bend County as an outstanding judge. Rest in peace, amigo.” Timothy Quill

 

“I remember when they came for my stepdad. It was in the middle of the night when I ran downstairs and saw the police inside our home. I watched helplessly as he was handcuffed, shoved into a police car, and taken from me. Falsely accused by a corrupt family attorney and subsequently indicted of one of the most heinous crimes imaginable, my stepdad reached out to a fellow Vietnam veteran and former U.S. Marine, R. H. “Sandy” Bielstein. The only thing my stepdad did was save my mother from a hell another man created, raise her children as his own, and teach me that the greatest power known to man is that of unconditional love. Sandy defended his honor against this injustice and fought for him all the way to trial. It was years later, after I had enlisted in the Marine Corps, that the verdict came back. Not Guilty.

It has been over 20 years since that night and never would have thought I’d end up becoming a trial attorney, let alone have a criminal defense practice in his court. Judge R. H. “Sandy” Bielstein dedicated his life to defending this country, defending his community, and preserving the rights of those falsely accused both from his private practice and from the bench. His calling to live a life of service and to help make the world a better place is not only what made him my hero, but also my mentor and friend. I hope that everyone, when such people cross their paths, never take someone like Judge Bielstein for granted. I certainly never did, and never will. He was truly Liberty’s last champion. Rest in peace, Your Honor. Semper Fidelis.” Mark Metzger

 

“Judge Bielstein was one of the very few Judges who thanked me for helping bring a case to conclusion without costing the County/State a lot of money.  He said, as a Private Investigator, our jobs were equally as important in his court.  I found him to be a man of his word, a man of integrity and honesty.  I will miss seeing him on the bench.” –Anonymous Private Investigator

 

“When I started my own practice focusing on criminal defense around 2006, I had a serious problem: I had no experience. I had heard that a Judge down in Fort Bend, a man I would later know well as Judge R.H. “Sandy” Bielstein, would appoint rookie lawyers from the bench. So I went down there and met with him. I mentioned that my trial advocacy Professor at UHLC was David Cunningham and he told me that he would appoint me some cases and that I should continue my tutelage under David (and David still mentors me to this day). I got my first hung jury in front of Judge Bielstein, and I also got my first not guilty. He also gave me a recommendation to TCDLA’s Trial College.

Many years later another lawyer told me that Judge Bielstein had told him something along the lines of ‘I didn’t think Fox would make at as a lawyer, but I was wrong.’

I love that man. He gave me a career, even when he wasn’t sure that I would have it in me to make it as a lawyer.

Judge Bielstein gave me a shot. He gave a lot a lot of people a shot.

He was a good man and a fair man and it breaks my heart to know that he has passed. I wouldn’t have a career without him, and I know many other lawyers are in the same boat. We are all poorer with his passing.” Fox Curl

 

“When I was starting my life as a Defense Attorney, well…I  wasn’t. I wasn’t anything. Some people say during their whole careers they have been standing on the shoulders of giants. Little did I know I would meet three of them at once. I remember parking my car that August day in 2004 thinking to myself “Where am I?”  Little did I know, I was parked in front of the office of my future mentors and future adopted family. I nervously waited for my mentor while his secretary calmly told me he would be coming. Finally, in walked Ralph Gonzalez.  He and his office mate, Diana Adams, would mentor me and show me the ropes here in Fort Bend. I remember him hurriedly coming in, welcoming me to his office. He then whisked me away to “the courthouse.”

I literally didn’t know where the courthouse was. We went up the elevator of the Travis Building and went to the Court. Not only did we go to court, Ralph and I went back to the Judge’s chambers. By the time we got there, there were other attorneys sitting in chambers and behind the Judge’s desk was this large bearded man smoking a cigarette and speaking with this loud booming voice. That man was R.H. “Sandy” Bielstein. Ralph introduced me to him and he welcomed me to his court and Fort Bend.  After introductions I observed my first juvenile docket with Judge Bielstein on the bench. I remember thinking to myself…I would kill to have his voice!

Months and many questions later, I received the news that I passed the bar. People asked me if I was going to Austin to be sworn in, and I thought to myself that there’s only one person I would have swear me into becoming a bonafide attorney. That was Judge Bielstein. I still remember standing in front of that giant man trying to get the oath right. I was so nervous. He took his time with me and after that he took pictures my mother would keep asking for.

He would later be the Judge that gave me my first appointed case. I still remember it was an assault case. My first check.  From then on his chamber door was always open. He always had time for me, even when his chamber was full of other attorneys vying for some time with him. He would sit with me through good times such as those, and was there for the bad times. I still remember his voice of anguish when I talked to him about the bad turn of events that took the life of Diana Adams. Though he and Diana had been adversaries at one time, they became fast friends soon after. I could see it hurt him when I told him the terrible news.

I learned so much from him over the years. Like “it never hurts to ask” the Court anything. You’ll never know what may come of it. I also learned that regardless the individual, mercy is due. That is rare in these “tough on crime” days.

When I moved my dad in with me after my mother succumbed to pancreatic cancer, Judge Bielstein would take time to ask me how he was doing. How I was doing. And after my father passed recently the last conversation we had started with Judge Bielstein asking me how I was doing. Even though I know he wasn’t feeling well, he was still concerned about how I was.
Last Sunday I lost another giant. We all did in the legal community. Rest In Peace Judge Bielstein…you will not soon be forgotten.” Scott Martinez

 

“Although I don’t have a special Sandy story to tell, I’ve known him for nearly 30 years.  I first met Sandy when I was in law school and knew him when I was a prosecutor and he was in private practice.  I always had an enormous amount of respect for him, both as a lawyer and for his service to the city of Houston and our country.  When I first started going to Fort Bend County regularly, I stopped by his office.  He presented an earnest welcome and extended an invitation to visit any time.  I remember thinking walking away impressed with how nice and welcoming he was to me.  That seemed to be the way he always was.  He was warm-hearted and friendly and he seemed to be that way with everyone.  He was a great judge and will be missed by the citizens of Fort Bend County.” –David Kiatta

 

“Judge B was the most influential person in my legal career.  He was the presiding Judge at my first jury trial as 3L intern at the Fort Bend DA’s office, as ADA in Fort Bend,  and as a defense attorney.  He was a scholar and a gentleman.

As the presiding judge of very first trial as 3L intern, he was kind, patient, and reassuring.  After a 3 minute Not Guilty, he invited me back to his chamber for a cigarette and to help dissect my direct of the officer and closing statement.  He gave me great insight into my presentation and comfort of the courtroom.  As the presiding judge my first trial as ADA, he was fair, tough and always patient.  After a long deliberated Guilty, we once again sat in his office to discuss the case, but he had quit smoking by this time.  As a prosecutor in his court, he made me a better lawyer and legal analyst.  He demanded that I know the facts and the law, otherwise it was the demise of my case.  As a judge over my first trial as a defense attorney, he was jovial and once again patient.  After long day of deliberations, and a guilty and not guilty, we again sat in his office to discuss the case, my plans for the future and just how I was doing.  We laughed at how during my closing, I accidently asked the jury for a guilty verdict (old habit).

On so many different occasions through our 10+ years of friendship, I would lose my demeanor for what I thought was a just right or equitable.  He would kindly listen to me blow my smoke and make his ruling.  But what I loved most was how he would gently let me huff and puff  if I disagreed.  Always listening and but kindly say, “Mr. Tu…” if I got too far out of line.

There is a hole in my heart for the citizens of Ft Bend County, to the personnel at the courthouse and to me personally for such a great and unexpected loss.”  Paul Tu

 

“I received my first court appointment in Fort Bend from Judge Bielstein in the early 2000’s. He asked who I was, and when I told him, we went back into chambers and talked. I let him know that I was a vet and he told me that he was a Marine; once a Marine, ALWAYS a Marine.

He was a crass, chain-smokin’ cool dude. Told me about his time as a vice cop for HPD in the late 70’s in the Montrose area. We had a good laugh about some of the places he patrolled and some of the busts he made. The guy was the best and fairest judge that I have EVER been before. He treated the defendants and lawyers with the utmost respect. Judge Bielstein knew how to talk to and treat poor people, which sadly, alot of local judges in this area (Harris Co.) have no clue how to do. They have NEVER been around poor people but for a court setting and it shows. He was different. He had empathy AND integrity.

Rest in peace Judge. Semper Fi.” Kendric M. Ceaser
“I met Judge Bielstein approximately 2001 having been introduced by a mutual friend. He was very friendly.  He gave me my first appointment in Fort Bend and told me how to get on the misdemeanor and felony appointment lists.
He was an extremely fair Judge. He was very stern when he had to be, but went that extra mile to save a probationer.
He was always fair in his rulings, and pleasant to be before.
I will miss him.” – Lawrence T. Newman

 

“The news of Judge Bielstein’s passing was devastating for so many people, and it was a harsh and unwelcome blow to the legal community in general and to Justice in particular. I feel that kind words just seem so insufficient to honor the memory of such an exceptional man, but these are the words that come to my mind when I think of him:  He was a remarkable man who gave invaluable advice, possessed immeasurable grace and compassion, was always there for you when you needed  him, had a golden heart the size of Texas, was a staunch advocate for Lady Justice, and he could always, always make you laugh. And then laugh some more. I will miss him so very much. ” –Leigh Love

 

“I met Judge Bielstein several years ago in his judge’s chambers, introduced by another mentor of mine who urged me to come to Judge Bielstein’s court to get some appointed cases as I was starting my fledgling practice. Hardly a rare story, as it seemed Judge Bielstein had a soft spot for fresh, young attorneys looking to make their way. After that, hardly a week went by when I wasn’t in his court working cases that he had appointed to me. We talked in his chambers often, and he would always ask how I was doing and how my practice was going.

Judge Bielstein became a mentor to me, as he did with so many young lawyers, and his words of wisdom and advice constantly resonate in my mind, especially those that came in a conversation in his chambers after trying my very first trial as lead counsel. Every trial lawyer will always remember his first trial, and as luck would have it, Judge Bielstein would preside over mine, making it that much more memorable.

So much can and will be said about this great man. He possessed the qualities and character which make not only a great judge, but a wonderful human being, whom I am both grateful and proud to have known. I will always hold him in the highest of regards, and will be forever grateful for everything he did to help me as a young lawyer. He will be truly missed.” –Wade Smith

 

“There are always people in one’s life who have an impact that is often not fully appreciated until years later. They say and do things that one realizes only long afterwards mattered a great deal.  Some people set out a path that they point out for others to walk.  I have been very fortunate in my life to have had contact with such people, both men and women.  Some have stayed in my life to this day; others had a brief but powerful impact that even now I still find myself contemplating.   They have included many folks from all walks of my life – school, service, the legal profession, friends and loved ones.  One man in our local courts here also had that kind of impact on my life.  His name was R.H. [he never liked his first name much] “Sandy” Bielstein, judge in the County Court Number Four in Fort Bend County, Texas. I know many of my colleagues have older, funnier stories of him; I do not pretend I knew him as well as others did.  I only know what he meant to me.

 

I began practicing out here almost twenty years ago. I was young, green, and thought I knew something.  Sandy was the first one to remind me of the limits of my knowledge, yet he still kept encouraging me to work here, to take appointments in his court, to help juveniles, and to handle more difficult trial and capital work once he knew I was qualified to take those matters.  There are countless times when I would sit in his chambers, having a cup of hot coffee while talking with him and absorbing some sense of his views on life and the law. He had crammed a lot of living into his years; he had been a Marine, a cop, a defense lawyer, and a judge.  He had seen quite a bit of life and more of lawyering than I likely ever will.  I tried to glean what I could from those times in his office, but there were three times that stand out to me most.

 

The first was when I had come back from Bosnia, and a tour of duty that profoundly changed how I viewed the world and my place in it.  He, along with his friend Susan Lowery down the hall, were the very first judges to welcome me back and put me to work to rebuild the practice I had shut down when I left on recall.  His constant encouragement to handle more difficult and challenging work helped me move up to more serious trial cases out here, and he introduced me to the district court judges with approval, approval I have tried hard to keep earning.  The second was during one of the most challenging and difficult trials of my professional life, a capital murder case that seemed destined for a bad outcome from the start. His exact words to me as I sat slumped and exhausted in the chair in his office after a long day of grueling jury selection, were these “Son, there ain’t nothing that says you have to like this job, or the clients, or the outcome.  You just have to do your best, and never quit trying.”  It was spoken like a Marine, and it put some steel back into my spine so I could keep going the next day.  I have never forgotten that.

 

The last time was when, a little while back, I had foolishly volunteered to help on difficult juvenile cases that came into his court.  These included cases of the mentally ill, the violent, the sex offenders, and the indigent and abused who fell into his court.  I found the work humbling, because there were often no good choices for these kids, and he knew it as well.  I kept on doing the work after a particularly sad case of a mentally ill youngster whom it seemed had been cursed by a very uncaring universe.  I kept on doing it because he took me in back for our one thousandth cup of coffee, and said to me ‘If you were a medic, and you could not save some, would you stop trying to save the next one?’  I knew the answer, and so did he.  He just had to remind me.

I will miss his often bawdy and always irreverent humor.  I will miss his gruff kindness, and his antipathy for those who had no sympathy for the ones that God seemed to have left behind.  I will miss his spirt, and his desire to always find a way to get justice done.  We all will.

Most of all, I will miss hearing that voice saying, ‘Come on in, sit down, have a cup of coffee,’ to me and so many others.” –Pat McCann

 

 

“Just as countless others can say, Judge Bielstein appointed me to my first case. That is not all he did for me as a new attorney. Being in Judge Bielstein’s Court allowed me to constantly experience what I think is the greatest part of working in criminal law, being able to truly help people strive to live a better life. With each case that came before Judge Bielstein, as he talked to the defendant about their case, you could see and feel the genuine concern he had for them and the positive changes he hoped to impress upon them. Judge Bielstein showed me that no matter where you are or what you are doing, if you take every opportunity to help and show compassion, others will see and follow your lead. Judge Bielstein truly cared about all the people that came into his courtroom. He was a great person and Judge, I will miss him.” – Nina Marie Amadi

 

“Judge Bielstein will be missed, but never forgotten!  Many years ago Judge Bielstein had enough faith in me to offer court appointments. I was merely a rookie’s rookie. However, Judge Bielstein’s confidence in my ability to defend defendants instilled a desire which developed into a passion for criminal defense. To this day I am unable to think of any other jurist, in any jurisdiction that could compare to Judge Bielstein and his assurance that justice will prevail.  Rest in peace, your honor!” Louis Salmon

 

New Immigration Considerations For Clients

***This memorandum from Federal Defenders of New York is published with their permission and is in regards to President Trump’s order on immigration enforcement from last week, not the most recent order on refugee and Muslim bans.  Thanks to David Patton and Isaac Wheeler of Federal Defenders of New York for making this memorandum available. ***

President Trump’s executive order titled “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States,” signed on Jan. 25, may have significant impacts on non-citizens with open federal criminal cases in the relatively near term. The order is only two days old and does not explicitly withdraw existing agency guidance on most issues it addresses, so it is not clear how soon DHS or DOJ will issue revised guidance to field offices regarding implementation. But federal criminal practitioners should be aware of several aspects of this order that may alter the landscape for noncitizen defendants and should closely monitor their implementation:

1) Some federal defendants who would not have been ICE enforcement priorities before may now be high priorities for removal even pre-conviction. Obama’s DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson issued a 3-tiered system of ICE enforcement priorities in late 2014. Once those took effect in 2015, 98 to 99% of all non-border removals were people who fell under those priorities, with the vast majority falling under levels 1 and 2 (primarily immigrants with convictions). As a result, thousands of ‘just undocumented’ folks or people with only minor records were left alone, even if ICE encountered them in the criminal justice system. The new order does not explicitly withdraw the 2014 memo but includes overarching language suggesting that no-one encountered by ICE need be left alone. (Before, ICE had to determine that a non-priority immigrant’s deportation served an “important federal interest” to deport him or her, and this accounted for only 0.2% of removals in FY2016).

It is important to bear in mind that ICE cannot generally deport people who are currently in valid immigration status (such as green card holders) in the absence of a conviction that falls under one of the specified categories of deportable conduct in the Immigration and Nationality Act. (There are exceptions, including for noncitizens apprehend at ports-of-entry, such as airport courier cases). This order does not change that. But as to those who currently lack valid immigration status or who have status but also already have a conviction that renders them deportable, it defines new and vastly broader enforcement priorities, including:
· Anyone who has been convicted of any “criminal offense” (even one that does not fall under a criminal deportation ground of the INA, such as a traffic misdemeanor). This language appears to apply to past convictions with no statute of limitations, and it is not clear yet whether it applies to dispositions that a state or locality would define as non-criminal (such as N.Y. state violations).
· Anyone who has been charged with any criminal offense, “where such charge has not been resolved.”
· Anyone who has committed conduct that constitutes a chargeable criminal offense (again, possibly including the most minor offense). This also conceivably covers anyone who entered the country illegally, since that is an offense under 8 USC 1325.
· Anyone who has engaged in fraud or willful misrepresentation in connection with an official matter or application to a government agency, or who has “abused” public benefits
· Anyone whom an immigration officer judges to be a risk to public safety
Again, these expanded priorities apply to people who are “removable,” and not, for example, to a green card holder arrested in the interior who has no prior convictions but has a pending case. Such a person is usually only removable upon conviction.

For clients covered by these expanded priorities, defenders should note that several of the changes may alter ICE and CBP practices when a non-citizen federal defendant is released on bond. In many cases, even if a defendant has an immigration detainer, ICE or CBP will process them upon release from custody but then allow the defendant to stay out under the bond conditions set by the court while the criminal case plays out. It remains to be seen if DHS will interpret the Jan. 25 order as a directive to work at cross-purposes with the U.S. Attorney’s Office by removing clients who are still facing federal prosecution. But for now, when there is a detainer, defense counsel should consult an immigration expert before seeking a client’s release on bond and should consider whether the client would be helped or harmed by being taken into ICE or CBP custody for removal before a criminal case is resolved. And depending on how this provision is interpreted by DHS, clients under pre-trial supervision who currently lack immigration status or who are otherwise removable may wish to consult an immigration expert now about possible defenses to removal, in light of the risk of possible immigration detention. (Clients should only be referred to reputable immigration lawyers with expertise in criminal-immigration removal defense).

Defense counsel should also consider these revised enforcement priorities when counseling a client regarding the effect of a deferred prosecution or the dismissal of a case (especially, but not exclusively, cases regarding document fraud, other frauds on the government, or public benefits), since DHS may interpret the order as a directive to prioritize even clients who are cleared of charges.

2) DOJ and DHS are ordered to identify and report on every federal defendant’s immigration status. Under the rubric of ‘transparency,’ the order directs DHS and DOJ to “collect relevant data” for quarterly reports on all non-citizens in BOP custody and “all aliens incarcerated as federal pre-trial detainees under the supervision of the [Marshals].” That’s not likely to change anything tomorrow, and virtually every deportable non-citizen in BOP custody becomes known to ICE already, but it could mean a closer-to-100% detainer rate at presentments if the Marshals implement this policy even when arresting case agents don’t confer with DHS.

3) Relatedly, the Priority Enforcement Program (“PEP”) Is scrapped and the Secure Communities (“S-Comm”) program is coming back. The Secure Communities program allowed ICE to learn of the arrest of noncitizens by any law enforcement agency via instant sharing of booking fingerprint data and to lodge “detainers” temporarily preventing their release. It was replaced with PEP in 2015 because of widespread criticism of the former program and the refusal of many jurisdictions to comply due to concerns about the legality and constitutionality of immigration detainers issued under S-Comm. Under PEP, ICE continued to receive fingerprint data but supposedly narrowed its criteria for the issuance of detainers. Importantly, in some cases it began to lodge a revised detainer form (I-247N) that only asked criminal authorities to notify ICE of a defendant’s release, not to hold the individual for 48 hours beyond the termination of criminal custody. While immigration advocates dispute claims that PEP meaningfully addressed the problems with the old, legally and constitutionally suspect detainers, S-Comm will now be reinstated, reversing whatever gains PEP represented. For now, if the USAO or USMS claims there is a detainer on a client, defense counsel should demand to see it and should note whether it is an I-247N that does not actually request that the defendant be held for ICE. In addition, detainers issued under PEP explicitly state that they are not meant to affect decisions on the issuance of bond, so subject to the new concerns discussed in Point 1, above, defense counsel should not automatically assume in every case that the existence of a detainer makes release on bond impossible or inadvisable.

4) Other aspects of the order may have significant impacts on noncitizens in the federal criminal justice system in the longer term:
· DOJ is ordered to devote “adequate resources” to the prosecution of immigration-related crimes. Since these already account for 52% of all federal criminal prosecutions, the impact of this directive is unclear, but the President appears to consider this allocation “inadequate”;
· DHS and DOS are ordered to implement authorized sanctions against countries that resist accepting deportees, which could change the outlook for defendants from Cuba, China, Sierra Leone, Vietnam, and other so-called “recalcitrant” countries;
· The broad language in the order directing the enforcement of the law against “all removable aliens” might affect DHS’ use of prosecutorial discretion to benefit federal defendants including cooperators, although again it remains to be seen if DHS will interpret the order as an instruction to work at cross-purposes with other state and federal law enforcement agencies
· Subject to appropriation, the order directs the hiring of 10,000 additional interior enforcement agents (above the large increases in the Border Patrol in the separate border enforcement order). ICE agents might be deemed exempt from the hiring freeze the President has separately ordered as necessary to meet public safety responsibilities, but if immigration judges are not, the already critical overcrowding of immigration courts could become a severe due process problem. (At this writing, detained noncitizens in New York are waiting eight to ten weeks for an initial hearing with an immigration judge).

Several immigration advocacy have already issued preliminary advisories and commentaries on the executive orders (which have helped inform the analysis above). Defense counsel should continue to check back with these organizations (including the National Immigration Project of the National lawyers Guild and the American Immigration Council) and the National Immigrant Justice Center’s Defender Initiative page for continuing guidance.

The impacts of this order on state criminal justice systems may be far more sweeping, and state criminal defense practitioners should watch for an advisory soon from the Immigrant Defense Project.

Isaac Wheeler
Immigration Attorney
Federal Defenders of New York
52 Duane St. 10th Fl.
New York, NY 10007