A Reminder of the Power of a Judge and the Impact on People
Two witnesses in trial of Jefferson County judge Dorothea Batiste testify to being jailed on contempt charges
The nine-member court began its trial today for Batiste, who was suspended with pay April 19 after a complaint was filed by the Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission charging her with 30 violations of the Alabama Canons of Judicial Ethics. The charges relate to her having seven people thrown into jail on contempt charges in five divorce cases that were before her. Most of the people had been witnesses in divorce cases and one involved child support payments.
As the trial began both the prosecutor and a defense attorney argued about the case, which has included charges of political intrigue, discrimination, and sexual harassment.
Griffin Sikes, the Judicial Inquiry Commission attorney prosecuting the case, told the court that the allegations against Batiste are that she didn’t follow the law and allow the seven people she had jailed a chance to respond first and did not allow bail. “This case is about due process of law,” he said.
Sikes urged the judges not to consider Batiste’s various claims of racial and gender discrimination, a political vendetta, selective prosecution, and a sexual harassment complaint against the former presiding Jefferson County judge. Instead, he said, Batiste did not know the law, nor attempted to learn the law, ignored it, or willfully violated it.
“I invite you to keep your eye on the ball,” Sikes said.
Julian McPhillips, an attorney for Batiste, called the prosecution of the only black Republican woman judges in Alabama “one of the worst cases of a railroading.”
Defense attorney Kenneth Shinbaum and Batiste also questioned witnesses today.
McPhillips told the court that at worse Batiste made a good faith mistake. He said that in at least four of the five cases cited were where the judge had used another procedure than contempt – one called a writ of attachment used to order a no-show witness picked up and brought to court.
In a court filing last week, McPhillips had said that had Batiste not issued the attachment orders or contempt citations the other parties who had repeatedly shown up for court would have been denied their due process.
Batiste was a good judge who had cleared the backlog in her court, disposing of 2,259 cases in less than two years, McPhillips argued.
But he said there has been selective prosecution of Batiste, with at least one recent former domestic court judge having used their contempt powers more and holding people in jail longer than Batiste, McPhillips said.
McPhillips also said charges against Batiste were orchestrated by former presiding Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Scott Vowell, a Democrat who Batiste claims had sexually harassed her and had political agenda.
Vowell has called Batiste’s claims baseless. Also, last week the chief judge of the commission ruled that Batiste could not use the charges as defenses at the trial and could only use it for purposes of impeaching a witness or possibly mitigating any possible penalties.
Two witnesses testified today about Batiste ordering them jailed before they had a chance to respond.
Sonja Bell testified that she spent three days in the Jefferson County Jail. She said that in August 2011 she had found a subpoena on her door to testify at a hearing at a divorce case – not her case – scheduled for two days later. But she was scheduled to leave on a pre-planned vacation that same day and called Batiste’s office to inquire. She said she also called a lawyer who advised her that the subpoena had not been properly served so she didn’t have to go to the hearing.
While on vacation she learned Batiste had issued a contempt order against Bell ordering her to jail for five days. She hired an attorney, who also told the commission today that he couldn’t get Batiste to hold a hearing on the contempt charge unless Bell first served jail time.
Bell said she served three days over a weekend before being released the following Monday.
Bell said she was exposed to a crack addict and a heroin addict. “I felt like I had a death sentence almost. It wasn’t fair,” she said.
Curtis Austin testified that he was arrested and jailed 12 days after Batiste issued an order he was unaware of for missing a court appearance of which he had no prior notice. He said he was behind on child support and the hearing was regarding an increase in payments.
Everett Wess, a Birmingham attorney who was hired by Austin’s current wife, testified that after repeated attempts try to get Batiste to hold a hearing, he went to another judge, Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Robert Vance, to issue an order releasing Austin.
“I was just trying to get my client out of jail as soon as I could because I thought he was being held unconstitutionally,” Wess said.
Wess had hired Batiste to work in his law office about 10 years ago, but had to let her go because she didn’t understand some fundamental issues in the law. But he said he did donate to and support her campaign for the bench.
Testimony in the trial restarts at 9 a.m. Tuesday. The trial is to continue at least through Wednesday.