Contempt Trial Having a Chilling Effect on Legal System

The outcome in the contempt trial of two prominent El Paso defense attorneys, which continued Wednesday, will scare and stop defense attorneys from doing their jobs, say legal experts.

The contempt trial, which has the entire legal community on edge, has become something of a window into the very essence, the business end of what defense attorneys rely on to zealously defend clients in the courtroom.

It is also a riveting docudrama of what can happen when ardent advocates collide with an entrenched system and politically motivated agendas.

“It’s going to throw a big bucket of cold water on the entire system,” said Robert Harris, a 38-year veteran, defense lawyer who has tried about 40,000 cases, mainly federal, in 25 of the 50 states.

“This is having a very chilling effect on everyone in the legal community,” said Harris who was in the process of selecting a jury Wednesday when he was called to testify in the contempt trial being held in a neighboring courtroom.

“You can’t be a Minnie Mouse as a defense attorney. I just think the whole thing (contempt trial) is silly and the complaint is baloney.”

As to the contempt complaint, an expert on the rules and guidelines governing defense attorneys and the legal system as a whole testified that not one of the charges contained in the contempt complaint met the standard to be considered a violation.

During testimony Wednesday, Darren Powell, the former head and 8-year member of the State Bar Grievance Panel, went through each of the charges in the contempt complaint filed against attorneys Leeds and Caballero by Judge Steve Smith, a visiting judge from the College Station area.

“I don’t see any disciplinary action here,” said Powell, who described Leeds and Caballero as the “most ardent” attorneys in El Paso. “I don’t see how tone gets you to contempt. I don’t see where the accusations meet the standard.”

Attorneys Caballero and Leeds were accused of contempt by Judge Smith following the trial of Judge Regina Arditti, who was found not guilty of nepotism and official misconduct. In late July, Judge Arditti lost her post in a runoff election.

Judge Smith contends in his complaint that the tone of attorneys Leeds and Caballero was disrespectful and rude. Judge Smith will not testify in the contempt trial, violating a basic rule of justice of facing your accuser.

Despite Judge Smith’s accusations, legal expert Powell said the rules make it a duty of defense attorneys to be “zealous” and even allows them to be “loud and angry.”

Sitting judges, practicing attorneys, religious leaders, and everyday citizens have testified on behalf of Caballero and Leeds, describing them as zealous, ardent, professional and passionate litigators.

“I never thought I would end up with the best lawyers in town,” said Hector Torres, a handicapped former computer technician.

Torres spent two years in jail after being accused of possession of child pornography, a charge that has yet to be proven. While in jail, Torres tried to commit suicide because he felt lost in a legal system that had left him without an attorney or other avenue to prevail in court.

He was defending himself and attempting to select a jury when Leeds and Caballero offered their legal services to him without charge.

“They restored my faith in the system,” he said during testimony. “It was as if a burden had been lifted with them (Caballero and Leeds) on my side.”

In addition to what legal expert Powell described as a flawed contempt complaint, attorneys Leeds and Caballero do not have access to the complete record, which has been sealed. Caballero described the record as “secret” because she has no control of how it is used, and she cannot use it fully to defend herself and Leeds.

Despite not having access to the full record, attorneys Caballero and Leeds said they will continue to bring witnesses before Visiting Judge Juanita Vasquez-Gardner, a visiting judge from Bexar County in San Antonio, to help her visualize who they are and to prove to her the complaint is flawed.

“We are trying to paint a picture for the judge of who we are, of our work and what we mean to the El Paso community,” Caballero said. “We are showing the court (Judge Vasquez-Gardner) that we are the only attorneys who were ethical, yet we were the only ones he (Judge Smith) came after.”

 

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