SANTA FE, N.M. (Legal Newsline) - The New Mexico Supreme Court said Tuesday a state district judge's mass jailing of 32 courtroom spectators for contempt was "an unlawful abuse of judicial power."
The Court said Judge Sam B. Sanchez, who until April served the state's Eighth Judicial District, failed to "honor the procedures of the law and the limits of constitutional due process."
The 32 spectators had all been summarily ordered to jail for contempt of court by Sanchez after a contentious hearing evolved into a courtroom disruption created by some, but not all, of the spectators.
The November 2009 hearing related to a criminal case in which a defendant had entered guilty pleas to criminal sexual penetration and criminal sexual contact of a minor, his 13-year-old niece. Sanchez had sentenced the defendant to six years of imprisonment on each of the two counts, to be served consecutively.
Sanchez had ordered the spectators jailed on a Thursday. No hearing of any kind was held or scheduled that day or Friday.
The spectators would've been forced to remain in jail without bond for at least four days and nights if it weren't for the state's high court intervening.
That Friday, the Court issued a stay of the proceedings against the group, ordered their immediate release from custody, and ordered they appear for an arraignment the next week.
Sanchez eventually dismissed all contempt proceedings and filed a cursory response with the Court, stating that "the remaining relief sought in the petition has become moot" as a result of his intervening order dismissing the matter.
Sanchez, who resigned three months ago, later testified before the Court that his goal was to ensure the safety of the victim and her family. He feared that an attack was imminent because "all hell broke loose" in the courtroom at the close of the hearing and there were some members of the crowd who were standing and yelling.
The Court, following the hearing, ordered the contempt convictions vacated and the spectators' arrest and booking records expunged.
The Court issued a 13-page follow-up opinion this week to further explain its decision.
"The extraordinary contempt powers of our courts often require judges to accommodate important, but potentially conflicting, obligations. Judges must take reasonable and necessary steps to maintain the order and safety of our court processes. At the same time, they must comply with fundamental principles of our constitutional system of due process of law to ensure that the judiciary itself does not act lawlessly in the course of enforcing the law," Chief Justice Charles W. Daniels wrote for the Court.
"Not only was Respondent's mass jailing of all 32 occupants of a public section of a courtroom, without any due process or determination of personal guilt, not the least power necessary to control the courtroom, it constituted such a uniquely egregious abuse of a court's contempt power that our research has found no comparable occurrence in any jurisdiction in the history of American law."
Whatever contemptuous conduct any of the spectators allegedly had been engaged in before Sanchez summarily ordered all of them to jail -- whether sitting when the bailiff told them to rise, or standing when Sanchez told them to sit back down, or talking when he wanted them to be quiet -- the Court said there was nothing in the oral or written contempt orders that gave any of them the ability to "end the sentence and discharge (themselves) of contempt at any moment by doing what (they had) previously refused to do."
"Indeed, the record reflects that whoever had been acting in any disruptive or disobedient manner had ceased doing so immediately upon (Sanchez's) oral pronouncement that he was sending everyone to jail, before a single written contempt order was prepared," the Court wrote.
"At that point, there was no need for any further crowd control or imposition of civil contempt sanctions. Petitioners clearly were jailed for the past behavior of one or more of them and not as a coercive measure to stop any continuing disorderly or disobedient behavior."
The Court said contempt proceedings also were inappropriate because Sanchez did not have personal knowledge of any spectator's guilt.
"In a striking perversion of the 'overriding presumption of innocence with which the law endows the accused and which extends to every element of the crime,' Respondent entered orders that essentially inflicted on each Petitioner an irrebuttable presumption of guilt," it wrote.
The Court said the due process protections of indirect criminal contempt proceedings also were not honored.
"The contempt orders provided no fair notice of each Petitioner's allegedly contemptuous behavior. The findings were not based on any evidence at all, admissible or inadmissible. Petitioners were given no opportunity to prepare or present any defense. They were not afforded their constitutional right to the assistance of counsel, either appointed or retained," it wrote.
And they were held indefinitely without any opportunity to be released on bail -- a violation of the New Mexico Constitution.
The Court said the need for courtroom control cannot override the requirement that judges themselves must honor the rule of law.
"Judges above all others in our society must honor the fundamental principle that a desirable end cannot justify means that violate the law," it wrote.
"The contempt power has always been viewed as a lawful tool in achieving courtroom control. But it is not the only tool available, and it normally need not be the first to be used.
"A clear admonition of what is expected by a judge, coupled with a specific warning of the alternative of contempt sanctions, often can achieve control without resort to a collateral contempt prosecution."
From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at email@example.com.