Two high-profile, El Paso defense attorneys on trial for contempt say they believe they are not receiving a fair and impartial hearing.
“You read the record before it was introduced,” a surprised Theresa Caballero asked Visiting Judge Juanita Vasquez-Gardner shortly after the proceedings began Tuesday.
“You are the fact finder in this case, and we are concerned that you have already made up your mind. This hearing is upside down. The people who should be defending themselves are not here, but we were ethical and yet we are the ones who you are coming after.”
Judge Vasquez-Gardner, who is a visiting judge from Bexar County, answered that she had not made up her mind regarding the contempt trial, and that she received a copy of the record from Judge Steve Smith, a visiting judge who filed the original contempt complaint against the two El Paso defense attorneys.
Judge Smith presided over the trial of Judge Regina Arditti, which is where the trouble began for attorneys Caballero and Leeds. The two accused Judge Smith of racism and abuse, and he countered with the contempt complaint.
Judge Arditti was found not guilty of allegations of nepotism and official misconduct. On July 31, she lost her post in a runoff election.
“It is clear to us that the judge (Judge Vasquez-Gardner) is doing the bidding of the complainant (Judge Smith),” said attorney Leeds.
One example attorneys Caballero and Leeds provided for their belief they are not receiving a fair trial is the lack of control they have over the official record from where the contempt allegations originated. The original transcripts of the record sit in boxes at the back of the courtroom near Judge Vasquez-Gardner’s bench.
During the first day of the trial, the records were sealed, but Judge Vasquez-Gardner ruled that portions could be used during the contempt trial. Caballero and Leeds objected to the double ruling because they believe they would be the only ones without access to the record.
So far in the trial, only DA Garza has cited the record, while the two attorney defendants simply raise questions about what is contained in the record.
“It is very difficult for a judge to go against another judge,” attorney Leeds said. “She’s just here to appease Judge Smith.”
The tone of the contempt trial has not shifted far from the case where the contempt allegations originated. Heated exchanges in open court and allegations of disrespect, hostility and rudeness continue to permeate the trial.
Meanwhile, witnesses continued to testify and profess the honesty, tenacity and successes of attorneys Caballero and Leeds.
During testimony Tuesday, Judy Adams, an IRS consultant with the criminal investigations unit, described Leeds and Caballero as “excellent” attorneys who put their client first and themselves second.
Adams, who said she moved to El Paso to emotionally support her longtime friend Judge Arditti, described Judge Smith as bias and an obstruction in the Judge Arditti case.
“I felt like the judge was acting as a part of things,” Adams testified. “He gave any benefit of a doubt to the prosecution. The judge appeared bias and the trial was absolutely nightmarish.”
District Attorney Henry Garza, the prosecutor from Bell County, called his second witness to the stand, Stephanie Conwell, who was a juror in the Judge Arditti trial. Conwell testified that Judge Smith was “very professional,” “patient” and “never lost his temper. He had to bite his lip at times.”
Conwell also testified that she believed the racism allegations made against Judge Smith were “silly” because most people “are generally late in El Paso.”
During Caballero’s cross examination of Conwell, the witness repeatedly agreed with Caballero on various issues, including that the two attorneys had done an “excellent” job during the Judge Arditti trial. In the end, she said she would hire Caballero and Leeds to defend her if the need ever arose.
The two attorneys filed a motion for a direct verdict, which means that there would be no need to continue the trial and the judge would simple make a decision. Judge Vasquez-Gardner denied the motion and the trial is expected to continue through the week.
Our tactics of saying the judge has joined the prosecution are a valid defense,” said attorney Caballero. “We’re just doing what we have always done. We don’t mean to offend judges or juries. That’s just how we do our jobs.”