Attorney held in contempt after challenging judge’s limit on public access to court

By Adriana M. Chavez
El Paso Times
Originally published July 2, 2014

A prominent El Paso lawyer was found in contempt of court and sentenced to 30 days in jail last year after challenging a Jury Duty Court judge’s efforts to limit public access to the courtroom.

Stuart Schwartz, a shareholder at the ScottHulse law firm who also is a former county commissioner, served a night in jail before being freed on a personal recognizance bond. The contempt charge from Jury Duty Court Judge Jerry Woodard was later dismissed.

In citing Schwartz for contempt, Woodard acknowledged he had erred on constitutional case law that generally requires courts to be open to the public. But he cited Schwartz for contempt anyway, and then tried to block efforts by another judge to release Schwartz on a personal recognizance bond, court records show.

“The record is very clear that I was nothing but polite and courteous to Judge Woodard. This was never about me,” Schwartz said. “I was speaking up for all those citizens called before Judge Woodard’s court whose constitutional rights to be present in the courtroom throughout the court session were being trampled upon without their knowledge.”

He declined to comment further because the matter remains pending. Woodard could not be reached.

Patrick Garcia, the presiding judge of the county’s Council of Judges, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Woodard’s administration of the Jury Duty Court has come under scrutiny in recent weeks after officials discovered that the court for years might have been improperly collecting millions of dollars in court costs from people who were fined for not showing up for jury duty.

Woodard, 83, retired last week amid increasing questions about the propriety of the court cost levies. He is a former district judge who had been appointed by the El Paso Council of Judges to oversee the Jury Duty Court. Woodard was paid $150,000 a year.

The county has temporarily suspended court costs in jury contempt cases.

Tom Gregor, an El Paso native and Houston-based attorney specializing in First Amendment litigation, said that it appears Woodard made mistakes in limiting public access to the court and in his handling of Schwartz’s contempt citation.

“An attorney held in contempt is entitled to due process,” said Gregor, who is also a board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. “In particular, you get to have a hearing before a different judge to determine actual guilt or innocence on the contempt charge.”

Gregor also said the public’s access to courtrooms during hearings can be limited in certain circumstances, but those circumstances have to be stated specifically on the record and only after a hearing on the issue.

“It typically arises in criminal cases where the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial conflicts with the First Amendment right of access, but that doesn’t appear to be the case here,” Gregor said.

According to court documents, on June 26, 2013, Schwartz accompanied another ScottHulse attorney, Casey Stevenson, to Stevenson’s Jury Duty Court hearing. Stevenson asked the court’s bailiff, Esmeralda Licon, if he could be present in the courtroom during the hearings of other defendants, but Woodard told Licon to tell Stevenson his request was denied.

Woodard stated in Schwartz’s contempt citation that he removed other defendants from the courtroom because “the courtroom is very small and the numbers of people charged are very cramped sitting in the spectator section.”

Woodard also stated defendants “often have very personal reasons why they did not appear for jury duty, such as medical problems of themselves or family or friends of a personal nature,” and “the court has observed reluctance on their part to share these matters with a large group.”

Woodard said in the contempt judgment he also believed “there is a temptation to adopt the factual testimony of others who have successfully defended the contempt charge.”

The judgment stated Schwartz was seen in the courtroom while “one or two cases were being tried” and left. He later re-entered with Stevenson, who asked why he couldn’t remain in the courtroom.

Woodard asked Stevenson to leave, and Schwartz “addressed the court in a loud and obstreperous manner.”

Woodard told Schwartz, who was not representing Stevenson, he couldn’t participate in the hearings, according to the judgment. Woodard stated in the judgement that Schwartz “had become a disruption” and was asked to leave again, but Schwartz refused.

Courthouse security was called to the courtroom, “leaving the court the option of having Mr. Schwartz forcibly removed with possible violence, or holding him in contempt of court.”

Schwartz told Woodard that the Constitution required him to allow public access to the court, according the contempt judgment. Woodard replied that the right to an open courtroom belonged to a defendant, not to the public.

In his contempt judgment against Schwartz, Woodard acknowledged that he was mistaken and that courts have recognized that the public has a general right under the First Amendment to witness judicial proceedings. But he said Schwartz was in contempt of court.

“Even though the court was not completely correct in its pronouncement of the law, this cannot justify a refusal to obey a court’s order, for a party cannot make himself a judge of the validity of orders which have been issued, and by his own act of disobedience set them aside,” Woodard wrote.

On Sept. 19, 2013, almost three months after the incident, Woodard sentenced Schwartz to 30 days in jail for contempt, plus a $500 fine and court costs.

Stevenson filed a request for Schwartz to be released on his own recognizance and to have another judge assigned to Schwartz’s case to determine guilt or innocence.

Court records show that on the next day, 210th District Judge Gonzalo Garcia ordered Schwartz’s release on a $1,000 personal recognizance bond. Gonzalo Garcia also ordered the transfer of all of Schwartz’s contempt proceedings to Judge Stephen Ables, the presiding judge of the state’s Sixth Administrative Region, which includes El Paso.

After Gonzalo Garcia’s decision to grant bond, Woodard issued an order a short time later trying to keep Schwartz jailed. His order said “that such personal bond be rendered moot because no trial court has jurisdiction to render such an order ….”

Jail records show Schwartz was jailed Sept. 19 and released on bond the next day.

Court records also show that on Oct. 11, Woodard declared Gonzalo Garcia’s order “null and void” because it was “improperly granted.”

Woodard dismissed the contempt case in March, according to court records.

Gregor, the Houston attorney, said that circumstances such as the size of a courtroom or privacy concerns should be considered on a “case-by-case basis,” but a general rule closing the courtroom to the public is an “infringement on the First Amendment.”

“The flip side to that is a judge does have discretionary authority to run a courtroom and keep it free from disturbances,” Gregor said. “If an individual is being disruptive, the judge can remove the individual and hold them in contempt.”