Contempt Trial More Than Its Parts

The judge accusing two El Paso defense attorneys of contempt on Friday took on about seven hours of withering questioning from one of the defendants, often side stepping or providing alternate answers.

Judge Steve Smith, of College Station, testified that prominent El Paso attorneys Stuart Leeds and Theresa Caballero allegedly brought disrespect to the judiciary with their bad courtroom behavior and disrespectful attitude toward the judge and jurors.

“They brought disrespect to the judiciary,” said Judge Smith during questioning from District Attorney Henry Garza, the prosecutor from Bell County. “It (alleged contemptuous behavior of attorneys) diminishes public confidence in the judiciary.”

The contempt trial of the two attorneys goes beyond the allegations and finger pointing, and appears more like the barometer for the state’s legal system.

During the trial, it has been contended that defense attorneys in El Paso and, perhaps statewide, will likely pare down their duty to zealous representation; judges will more carefully consider rulings and the courts will play host to timid litigators and jurists.

Today’s testimony from Judge Smith only served to reinforce the notion that the outcome of the contempt trial will toss a bucket of cold water on the ability of defense attorneys to vigorously and zealously defend their clients.

Both sides have accused the other of disrespectful behavior, condescending attitudes, racism and contemptuous acts.  Despite this, legal experts have testified that none of the allegations against Caballero and Leeds meets standards or violate state rules and guidelines governing attorneys and jurists.

Under questioning Friday, Judge Smith admitted he was unaware of accepted procedures , conventional courtroom behavior in El Paso and a basic understanding of the culture and well-established ideas of the El Paso community.

Attorney Caballero, who questioned the judge for about seven hours Friday, managed to convince Judge Smith that he was wrong on several topics during the trial, including allowing disputed hearsay onto the record and chastising the attorneys in front of the jury.

“It might not have been the right thing to do,” Judge Smith said, regarding his scolding of the attorneys in front of the jury when they wanted all proceedings on the record.

Concerning other issues, Judge Smith denied that he is a racist as has been alleged by the accused defense attorneys, or that he is thinned skinned and only wants to get revenge, or that he doesn’t like the two attorneys.

He testified that he stands firm on his allegations that the El Paso attorneys were contemptuous, rude, and used condescending tones of voice during the trial of Judge Regina Arditti, who was found not guilty of felony charges and has since lost her post in a runoff election.

The judge wondered aloud during testimony why “they (attorneys and others) would not call Mexican-American attorneys in (his town) and know that I am not a racist.”

Before the Arditti trial began, the defense attorneys and Judge Smith exchanged emails and one of the judge’s emails stated that he would expect the attorneys to be in court at 8:30 a.m., which many believed he implied was not the custom in El Paso.

Many El Paso attorneys, community leaders, jurists and residents believed the judge had made a racist comment related to Mexican-Americans being lazy and unable to meet the 8:30 a.m. deadline.

“I had no thought in my mind that that email would offend anyone. I was astounded,” said Judge Smith, explaining he had checked the court docket and noticed that most of the court times were set for 9 a.m. or 9:30 a.m.

He added that it was his custom to begin any and all trials at 8:30 a.m. and that he was not implying anything else.

Attorney Caballero continued her examination of Judge Smith, asking questions that lead him to admit he may have been wrong on his decisions during the trial, but he denied he was out to get the attorneys by having their licenses cancelled.

“It’s not my call,” he said. “That’s not my decision.”

While confronting the judge during her examination, Caballero simply stated: “Judge Smith is a menace to the system. (He) is a danger to the community.”

Judge Smith responded, saying “I know I am not those things. If it were true, it would concern me, (but) I never let myself worry about what people think.”

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