By Terry Britt, Staff Writer
CANTON—Van Zandt County Clerk Charlotte Bledsoe has been cleared of a contempt of court charge levied against her by Van Zandt County Court-At-Law Judge Randall McDonald.
The appointed judge for the case, Diane DeVasto, granted a defense motion to dismiss the charge just before 5 p.m. Monday.
Bledsoe’s attorney, Paul Elliott, presented the motion to dismiss after nearly seven hours Friday in the 294th District Courtroom.
“It was nice to be vindicated,” Bledsoe said from her office in the county courthouse Tuesday morning.
DeVasto’s ruling put an end to a criminal case that may be one of the most unusual to have ever taken place in the Van Zandt County Courthouse.
Convening shortly after 9 a.m., the actual hearing for Bledsoe was delayed nearly three hours by a set of motions presented from among three private attorneys representing County Court-At-Law Judge Randall McDonald.
McDonald had charged Bledsoe with contempt of court for not staying or providing a deputy clerk to his court during arraignments on June 6.
Through his attorneys, however, he sought to have the county’s Criminal District Attorney, Chris Martin, disqualified from prosecuting the case against Bledsoe.
That set off a lengthy pre-trial hearing which left Martin defending the duty of his office to prosecute the case on behalf of the state and the county court-at-law.
“As the elected Criminal District Attorney for Van Zandt County, I have been authorized to pursue criminal cases, and contempt of court is a criminal offense,” Martin said.
“I am the sole authority to represent the state in criminal matters…Judge McDonald lacked the authority to make the appointments (of private attorneys) he did,” Martin added.
Attorney Greg Wilhelm, joined by attorneys John M. Cook and Vickers Cunningham in representing McDonald, countered that Martin should be removed from prosecuting the case against Bledsoe because “he does not represent the interest of the court (county court-at-law).”
He later contended that the county court-at-law is an independent judicial branch with the right to have its own representation.
Amidst all of this, Elliott made it known he felt Bledsoe’s right to due process was being compromised.
“I really think we are losing focus here. This is a criminal trial,” Elliott said.
During the trial — when it finally got under way just before 1 p.m. — Martin called upon several witnesses who were in the county court-at-law courtroom on June 6.
Those included assistant district attorney Barry Bilger, attorney Natalie Fletcher, deputy county clerk Maleisha McCoy and court reporter Shelly Crossland.
According to testimony from those witnesses, the initial incident that led to the events of June 6 was an exchange between McDonald and McCoy, who was serving as court clerk for a docket of arraignments and some pleas that day.
McCoy testified she saw McDonald about to hand to a defendant a document other than information sheet regarding the charge or charges against him.
She said when she stood to retrieve the document, McDonald ordered her to sit back down and not leave the courtroom.
Bledsoe eventually came into the courtroom to relieve McCoy of her duty, several witnesses testified.
However, about noon, after a short recess, Bledsoe did not return to the courtroom until retrieved by a county deputy serving as court bailiff.
Several of the witnesses indicated they heard Bledsoe explain to McDonald that she did not have a clerk available for his court during the lunch hour because two of her employees were on their lunch break and those remaining were busy with state-required paperwork following the May 31 party primary elections.
Bledsoe has a staff of five clerks, two of whom go on their lunch break at 11:30 with the other three going to lunch at 12:30.
Speaking Tuesday, Bledsoe noted, “On the day in question, I had one employee out sick, which reduced me to four.”
According to testimony on Friday, what followed the conversation between McDonald and Bledsoe is that McDonald ordered Bledsoe to stand before him and he charged her with contempt of court.
All of those witnesses said they saw nothing about Bledsoe’s expression, body language or demeanor that indicated anger or contempt toward McDonald. Some witnesses went as far as to describe her as “submissive” and “respectful” as she was charged with the offense.
Finally, McDonald himself took the stand and testified that he had to send a deputy twice across the hall of the courthouse’s second floor in an attempt to get Bledsoe back into the courtroom.
“I said on three occasions to her, ‘I need a clerk,’” McDonald stated.
In cross-examination, Elliott asked the judge if he used any words indicating he was giving an order, but McDonald repeated his earlier statement.
In response to a question by Martin if he had ever issued a formal order for a clerk to be present at all times while his court was in session, Judge McDonald referred to a set of e-mails he said he had sent following a series of conversations with Bledsoe and others in the courthouse in early 2011.
McDonald’s testimony turned slightly contentious at times, with both Martin and Elliott objecting for a “non-response” from McDonald to their questions.
When asked if he thought Bledsoe, if found guilty, should serve his recommendation of 10 days in the Van Zandt County Jail, McDonald replied, “No,” but added he did feel she should be fined.