Judge Kenneth Hoyt today held Chuck Rosenthal and his lawyer, Harris County District Attorney’s Office General Counsel Scott Durfee, in civil contempt, ordering Rosenthal to pay $18,900 in “attorneys’ fee sanctions” and making Durfee jointly and severally liable for $5,000 of that.
Here’s the order.
Here’s the motion. I think the motion could have supported a criminal (punitive, rather than restorative) contempt finding, with a larger fine and even jail time, but $18,900 is a pretty good whack, and civil contempt only has to be proven by clear and convincing evidence, rather than beyond a reasonable doubt.
Judge Hoyt comes down hard — but not too hard — on Chuck; I don’t know if $18,900 will make an impression on him, but it would on most of us. I was a little surprised at how hard he came down on Scott, but it appears that Judge Hoyt thought that Scott had maintained inadequate control over his client and then been less than candid with the court and tried to conceal Chuck’s deletion of the emails.
As usual, and as in the underlying Ibarra lawsuit, it’s not the initial bad act — the deletion of emails in violation of court order — that hurts as much as it is the coverup.
I’ve heard judges order people to pay contempt sanctions out of their own pockets; Judge Hoyt didn’t do so. I wonder: will the Harris County Commissioners, who have already approved $227,000 for the contempt defense in this case (query: has the County ever paid half that for the defense of a capital case) go ahead and force Harris County’s taxpayers to pay the sanctions?
The commissioners aren’t supposed to pay any amount that doesn’t serve a public purpose. I don’t see how holding Chuck Rosenthal harmless for his contempt serves a public purpose, but I suppose it serves the same public purpose (whatever that was) of paying almost a quarter-million dollars for his contempt defense.
From my reading of the order, I think there’s an argument for the taxpayers to pay Scott Durfee’s $5,000 share of the $18,900. The bulk of taxpayers will probably disagree with me. But if Commissioner’s Court makes the taxpayers pay the entire $18,900, Judge Hoyt’s contempt finding will make no impression on Chuck Rosenthal or on any future public servant who decides to obstruct justice in a federal civil rights case.