The contempt trial of two, prominent El Paso defense attorneys opened Monday on the same tone as the original case from where it originated – filled with disdain.
Attorneys Theresa Caballero and Stuart Leeds are defending themselves against allegations of contempt stemming from the trial of Judge Regina Arditti, who was found not guilty of allegations of nepotism and official misconduct. In late July, Judge Arditti lost her post in a runoff election.
Judge Steve Smith, a visiting judge who presided over the case involving Judge Arditti, filed the allegations against attorneys Leeds and Caballero after the case ended. He fined Caballero $5,000 and Leeds $2,500, saying he had never seen attorneys act in such a disrespectful manner during a trial.
Caballero and Leeds alleged during the Arditti trial that Judge Smith was racist and that the trial would not be handled in a fair and proper fashion. The two asked that Judge Smith recuse or take himself off the case, which the judge refused to do.
During Monday’s legal wrangling to focus the trial, it appeared that the case comes down to a simple matter of culture differences and personality clashes, which were displayed from both sides of the courtroom.
“A judge’s sensibilities being hurt doesn’t make it contemptuous,” said attorney Leeds during his opening statement Monday. “The opening statement just put it all in perspective. It is all there.”
Leeds opening statement outlined his more than 30 year career as a litigator and the 20 year career of Caballero. The statement covered everything from his Judge Advocate General or JAG tenure and retirement as a full colonel to Caballero’s work on the State Bar Grievance Committee and the El Paso Ethics Board.
The opening statement clearly outlined the two attorney’s work as leaders in the community and advocates for the downtrodden.
Visiting Judge Juanita Vasquez-Gardner accepted a judicial notice that involves three separate complaints, all of which are different from the other. In addition, she granted a protective order that is expected to not allow Judge Arditti to be mentioned during the proceedings and keeps the documents of her trial from being disseminated publicly.
The three complaints and the protective order, say attorneys Leeds and Caballero, make it next to impossible to defend themselves properly. The three complaints were filed by Judge Smith, Judge Vasquez-Gardner and Henry Garza, district attorney for Bell County who is prosecuting the case.
“One complaint mentions an allegation, while another doesn’t,” Caballero said during a break. “It’s not a Star Chamber. How do we prepare? We are limited by documents that are not public. This is insane.”
Caballero and Leeds have subpoenaed more than 80 witnesses to testify on their behalf while the prosecution has only two. As the witnesses began to testify, it was clear that Leeds and Caballero are prepared to defend themselves as zealously and tenaciously as they do their clients.
The three witnesses who came before Judge Vasquez-Gardner Monday on behalf of Caballero and Leeds described them as tough and passionate attorneys.
“This should not be happening to Theresa and Stuart,” said Judge Bonnie Rangel, a sitting district court judge who Caballero and Leeds practice before, and who she appoints to cases.
“They have passion. When you appoint lawyers, you pick the lawyers who are the most competent. Mr. Leeds and Ms. Caballero are at the top of the list.”
During the proceedings on Monday, District Attorney Garza continually objected to Caballero’s questioning of his first witness, Robin Zubeck, a retired educator.
Garza complained that Caballero was badgering the witness and taking menacing steps toward him as if to intimidate the witness. Judge Vasquez-Gardner controlled the outburst and asked if it was common practice for attorneys in El Paso to stand while conducting an examination of a witness.
Caballero answered it was disrespectful not to stand and uncomfortable not to have a lectern, which she said is common practice in El Paso. Garza said attorneys in Bell County question witnesses from their seats, to which Judge Vasquez-Gardner stated attorneys in Bexar County also probed witnesses from their chairs.
Shortly before Caballero reopened her questioning of Zubeck, court staff delivered a lectern so that the attorney could continue her examination of the witness.
Zubeck, who was testifying against Caballero and Leeds, said that attorney Caballero approached him outside the courtroom Monday during a break and asked to speak to him. He said he refused because he had been instructed not to speak to anyone involved in the case.
The witness, who was not selected for the Arditti jury, but had a confrontation with Caballero during jury selection in that trial, described Caballero and Leeds as disrespectful, rude and that he felt like he was bullied.
But during her questioning, Zubeck began to change his demeanor and agreed that he may have misinterpreted what occurred during the Arditti jury selection process.
Caballero and Leeds expect to continue presenting their case on Tuesday employing the testimony of more than 80 witnesses who will appear on their behalf.
“We are zealous advocates for our clients and we refuse to be bullied,” said attorney Leeds. “We got an abusive judge and all we did was stand firm, which we will continue to do.”