Southeast Texas Reporter David Yates while sitting in on a court proceeding earlier this week was sworn-in as a witness by one of the lawyers involved in the matter.
The unusual incident, which in effect allowed an attorney to exclude him from the courtroom, occurred Monday as Yates was making a routine check of civil court dockets.
Port Arthur attorney Sheigh Summerlin, who summoned Yates as a witness, later told Record editor Marilyn Tennissen he was sworn because the parties wanted to know why a reporter was present for a sealed case proceeding.
"We didn't know who he was or why he was there," Summerlin said by phone on Wednesday. "There was media around at the beginning of the case, so it was sealed. We wanted to know what he was doing.”
The situation unfolded as Yates made a customary inquiry with the coordinator for the 60th District Court about what cases would be heard on Judge Gary Sanderson’s docket. He was told “nothing.” But Yates noticed that there was a proceeding of some sort going on in the courtroom, so he entered and took a seat.
Moments later, the court coordinator noticed Yates in the courtroom and notified the attorneys in the case that a reporter was present. The judge, who was unknown to Yates, called the attorneys to the bench. After several minutes of discussion, Summerlin announced that she intended to call Yates as a witness.
Summerlin handles criminal defense, divorce, estate planning, family law, as well as other areas of law.
Yates was escorted to the bench and sworn in. Then, the rule of sequestration was invoked, which requires that witnesses remain outside the presence of other testifying witnesses, and the bailiff then escorted Yates out of the courtroom.
At this point, Yates still was not aware of the nature of the proceedings or the parties involved.
While he had been at the judge’s bench, Yates said he was able to view a document that contained a case number. After he was removed from court, Yates tried to locate the case file corresponding to the number he saw, and discovered the proceedings may have been dealing with a family law matter. Generally, the Record does not cover family law issues, divorces or child custody cases. According to the electronic files in the clerk’s office, all records relating to the case number that Yates looked up had been sealed.
Yates contacted Tennissen, who met him at the courthouse.
During a break in the proceedings, Tennissen approached the judge in the hallway, who identified himself as Houston Judge Doug Warne, a visiting administrative judge who was using the 60th District courtroom.
Tennissen explained to Judge Warne that Yates could not possibly be a witness in the case, since he had no idea what the case was. She explained that if the proceedings did in fact deal with a sealed family law case, Yates would have voluntarily left the courtroom if asked.
Shortly after Tennissen spoke to the judge, the proceedings resumed. A bailiff then called Yates into court, and Tennissen also entered and took a seat.
Yates took the witness stand and Summerlin asked him how he learned about the proceedings, to which Yates answered that he had no knowledge of the proceedings until he walked in the courtroom. He told Summerlin that he had since looked up what he thought was the case number and gave her the case name that he found.
At that point, Summerlin said the parties Yates named were not the parties in the present proceedings. Judge Warne asked if she still intended to call Yates as a witness and Summerlin said no. Warne then released Yates.
In addition to Summerlin, some of the other attorneys present were Mitch Toups of Beaumont's Weller Green Toups & Terrell and Beaumont family law attorneys Tonya Toups and Scott Browne.
Later by phone, Summerlin said the parties did not want to just ask Yates to leave. They wanted to know why he was there.
"Once I found out that he was not there to report on our case, he could go," she said. "I feel bad that we took up his time, we all do."
The attorney said she cannot provide any information about the case.