Recent decision shows justices divided over Texas' bifurcated appeals process

Steve Korris May 31, 2011, 3:40am


AUSTIN – Dallas County District Judge Gena Slaughter improperly confined a defendant in a civil suit for lying at a deposition, the Supreme Court of Texas ruled on May 27.

By writ of mandamus, the Justices voided an order that cost Coy Reece four days in custody and would have cost him at least 10 more.

"During discovery it is inevitable that inconsistencies will arise, but the function of our legal system is to ascertain the truth from within these inconsistencies," Justice Eva Guzman wrote.

"We are loath to contemplate a system where litigants and their attorneys scour transcripts, searching for any misstatement for the sole purpose of accusing the opponent of contempt and ultimately securing the opponent's confinement," she wrote.

She asked if a court, believing a person testified falsely, could punish the person for contempt with the purpose of compelling the person to testify in a manner the court considers truthful.

She wrote that Slaughter could have imposed sanctions ranging from payment of the other side's expenses to default judgment.

Guzman wrote that Slaughter could have referred a perjury allegation to the district attorney for criminal prosecution.

Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson joined the opinion, as did Justices Nathan Hecht, Dale Wainwright, David Medina, Paul Green and Debra Lehrmann.

According to dissenting Justices Don Willett and Phil Johnson, the majority granted relief that only the Court of Criminal Appeals may grant.

"It is undisputed that we cannot hear this case as a habeas petition," Willett wrote. "Why, then, should we be permitted to hear it under another name?"

He wrote, "No amount of head tilting and eye squinting can manufacture jurisdiction where there is none."

Complaining that bifurcation of civil and criminal appeals left Texas with "a non supreme Supreme Court," he exhorted legislators to act.

"The fastest growing state in the nation requires a modernized top to bottom judicial structure fit for the 21st century and worthy of our great state," he wrote.

Case background

In the civil suit before Slaughter, SB International claimed Reece and others diverted business by secretly convincing customers to place orders with SB's suppliers.

At a deposition in 2008, Reece denied knowing about another defendant's transaction in violation of a contract.

He later admitted he lied.

SB moved for sanctions, requesting costs and fees totaling almost $60,000.

At a hearing, Reece testified he lied under oath at the deposition.

Slaughter found him guilty beyond reasonable doubt of lying "repeatedly, deliberately, and intentionally."

She found he lied to impede, embarrass or obstruct the court in discharge of its duties.

Slaughter sentenced him to 60 days confinement, suspending all but two weeks.

Reece filed a habeas corpus petition at the Fifth District appeals court in Dallas and obtained emergency relief.

On further review, Fifth District judges decided they lacked jurisdiction.

Reece sought habeas relief at the Court of Criminal Appeals, where judges denied it because he wasn't in custody.

The sheriff took him into custody, and he filed another habeas petition.

The Court of Criminal Appeals denied it, finding the underlying case was civil in nature rather than criminal.

The court declared it possessed jurisdiction to act on Reece's petition, but declined to act so he could pursue remedies at the Supreme Court.

Reece moved for reconsideration and petitioned the Supreme Court.

The Justices ordered Slaughter to release him on bond.

He had lost four days of freedom, and the rest of his sentence hung in the balance.

The Justices heard arguments last October, and reached decision seven months later.

"While we agree that Reece's perjury undoubtedly may have caused SB difficulty in the discovery process, we cannot say, on this record, that it obstructed the court in the performance of its duties," Guzman wrote.

She wrote that his reprehensible behavior caused his opponent delays and costs.

"But we fail to see how Reece's misstatements during his deposition rose to the level of actually obstructing the court in the performance of its duties," she wrote.

She limited the holding to situations where the underlying dispute is civil and the Court of Criminal Appeals declines to exercise jurisdiction.

Willett fumed that the entire system should be scrapped and rebuilt top to bottom.

"Statute and precedent strongly suggest we cannot hear this case, but even if we can, practical considerations advise we should not," he wrote.

He wrote that the clerk's office sends a stock letter every day, "to lost litigants, steering them to our sister court and noting that the Supreme Court does not have jurisdiction over criminal cases and does not review the decisions of the Court of Criminal Appeals."

He wrote, "If we dismiss, Reece will return to our sister court, where a motion for reconsideration remains pending – presumably awaiting our action."

"This renders untrue the court's statement that Reece has no other procedure to challenge his confinement in our state courts and no adequate remedy by appeal."

He wrote, "I understand the court's commendable desire to correct an erroneous trial court ruling, but where our labyrinthine judicial structure curbs our ability to hear certain cases, we must obey that limitation."

Robert Gilbreath, Craig McDougal, John Ellis and Samuel Butler represented Reece.

Edward Dennis, Jeremy Fielding, Joseph Nathan and Richard Smith represented SB.

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