Defense Attorneys Live to Fight Another Day

After six days of trial battling charges of contempt, prominent defense attorneys Theresa Caballero and Stuart Leeds can breathe a sigh of relief.

Visiting Judge Juanita Vasquez-Gardner, a jurist in Bexar County, on Saturday decided that the two attorneys will not have to pay any fines and will not face any jail time after finding the attorneys guilty of contempt.

“Judge Smith doesn’t know the things I know about you,” said Judge Vasquez-Gardner addressing Leeds and Caballero. She then added, “It would be a travesty” if the El Paso community lost two attorneys like Mr. Leeds and Ms. Caballero.

Judge Vasquez-Gardner, of San Antonio, presided over six days of passionate testimony and often tense legal wrangling in the contempt trial of attorneys Caballero and Leeds.

The judge listened to 53 witnesses from federal judges and community leader to legal experts and everyday citizens testify to the significance and value of the two attorneys to the community. Many of the witnesses, who hired baby sitters or took days off from work, came of their own free will to testify on behalf of the attorneys.

Attorneys Caballero and Leeds faced thousands of dollars in fines and jail time after being charged with contempt last year by Visiting Judge Steve Smith, of Brazos County in the College Station area.

Judge Smith, who was the prosecution’s star witness, filed the charges after presiding in the trail of El Paso District Judge Regina Arditti, who was found not guilty of felony charges, including nepotism and bribery. Judge Arditti has since lost her position in a runoff election.

It was revealed Saturday that Judge Smith had been threatened through an email not to come to El Paso. District Attorney Henry Garza, the prosecutor from Bell County, said various security measures were taken so that Judge Smith could testify on Friday.

“I am happy and I appreciate what the judge said on the record that it would be a travesty to deprive the El Paso community of two excellent advocates,” said Caballero following Judge Vasquez-Gardner’s decision. “I truly appreciate it, and she has sent a clear signal to the state bar.”

It was contended during the contempt trial that the outcome of these proceedings could affect the El Paso legal system and perhaps litigators and jurists statewide. The argument was that defense attorneys would likely not argue as zealously as is their duty; judges would more carefully consider rulings and the courts would play host to timid lawyers and judges.

During his closing argument Saturday, DA Garza said he was shocked with the courtroom behavior of Leeds and Caballero during the Judge Arditti trial. He said he believed the evidence before Judge Vasquez-Gardner proved the contempt charges.

Despite having said that, DA Garza said that the evidence should be “balanced against the value these two counsels have to the community at large.”

Although Judge Vasquez-Gardner found instances of contempt, she cut the $5,000 fine imposed by Judge Smith on Caballero to $900 and the $2,750 fine charged to Leeds to $500.  Caballero faced 11 contempt charges and Leeds seven.

The judge then said she was probating the fines, meaning the attorneys would not pay anything. In addition, she said that she would not impose any jail time on the two attorneys because it would deprive the El Paso community.

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

It is unclear what, if anything, the State Bar of Texas will consider, or if any disciplinary action will be taken.

“I said what I meant. It came from the heart,” said attorney Leeds after the trial, referring to his closing statement. “The way the judge did it was the best way. There is nothing for the state bar to consider. There is no grievance problem. I consider this a badge of honor.”

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