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In re State of Texas ex rel. Escamilla

Court of Appeals of Texas, Third District, Austin

December 11, 2017

In re State of Texas ex rel. David Escamilla, Travis County Attorney

         ORIGINAL PROCEEDING FROM WILLIAMSON COUNTY

          Before Justices Puryear, Field, and Bourland

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Scott K. Field, Justice

         On April 3, 2017, Judge Nancy Hohengarten of Travis County Court at Law No. 5 issued a written order finding Adam Reposa, a licensed attorney, in "direct criminal contempt for behavior and statements made in open court in the presence of a jury panel and the parties." Specifically, Judge Hohengarten found that Reposa had committed five separate acts of contempt during a March 27 criminal trial in which Hohengarten was presiding and Reposa was acting as defense counsel.[1]

         Judge Billy Ray Stubblefield, the presiding judge of the third administrative judicial region, subsequently appointed Judge Paul Davis to preside over the contempt proceedings against Reposa. See Tex. Gov't Code § 21.002(d) (requiring assignment of judge to determine guilt or innocence when officer of court is held in contempt by trial court). On September 20, 2017, following a two-day evidentiary hearing, Judge Davis signed a written order finding that Reposa had committed the five acts of contempt as alleged by Judge Hohengarten and requiring Reposa to serve six months in the Travis County Jail. Six days later, Reposa filed a motion for release on personal recognizance bond or alternatively reasonable appeal bond. Judge Davis held a hearing on the motion for bond on October 2, 2017, at which Reposa's attorney appeared without Reposa. At the conclusion of the hearing, the court denied the bond request and ordered Reposa "to present himself to the Travis County Sheriff's Office on or before 2:15 p.m. on October 2, 2017, to begin his sentence." Reposa was subsequently arrested in Williamson County and transferred to Travis County, where he began serving his contempt sentence.

         On October 2, 2017, the same day that Judge Davis denied Reposa's request for bond, Reposa's attorney filed a motion for leave to file writ of habeas corpus in the 368th District Court of Williamson County. The trial court immediately granted the motion. On October 9, Reposa filed his application for writ of habeas corpus and his application for bench warrant in Williamson County. The trial court signed and issued a bench warrant instructing the Travis County Sheriff to transfer Reposa to the custody of the Williamson County Sheriff in order for Reposa to appear at a hearing on the application for writ of habeas corpus.

         On October 12, 2017, Relator State of Texas ex rel. David Escamilla, Travis County Attorney (the "State"), filed a petition for writ of prohibition and for writ of mandamus in this Court, requesting that we compel the respondent, the Williamson County trial court (the "trial court"), to dismiss Reposa's application for writ of habeas corpus.[2] Relator argues that the trial court abused its discretion in granting Reposa leave to file his application for writ of habeas corpus because "the Williamson County court lacks jurisdiction, venue, and authority to hear and entertain any request for habeas corpus relief from a guilty verdict in a contempt proceeding."

         MANDAMUS STANDARD

         To be entitled to mandamus relief in a criminal case, the relator must show that (1) he has no adequate remedy at law to redress the harm he alleges and (2) what he seeks to compel is a ministerial act. See In re State ex rel. Weeks, 391 S.W.3d 117, 122 (Tex. Crim. App. 2013); see also Walker v. Packer, 827 S.W.2d 833, 839-40 (Tex. 1992) (similar mandamus standard in civil case). With respect to the ministerial-act requirement, an act is considered ministerial if it "does not involve a discretionary or judicial decision." In re Medina, 475 S.W.3d 291, 298 (Tex. Crim. App. 2015) (citing Simon v. Levario, 306 S.W.3d 318, 320 (Tex. Crim. App. 2009)). In addition, "[i]f a trial judge lacks authority or jurisdiction to take a particular action, the judge has a ministerial duty to refrain from taking that action, to reject or overrule requests that he take such action, and undo the action if he has already taken it." Id. (citing 43B George E. Dix & John M. Schmolesky, Texas Practice Series: Criminal Practice and Procedure § 61.29 (3d ed. 2011)).

          ANALYSIS

         "Contempt is the means by which the courts are able to enforce compliance with their orders, judgments, and processes by requiring individuals to defer to the authority of the courts in its administration of justice."[3] Ex parte Powell, 883 S.W.2d 775, 777 (Tex. App.-Beaumont 1994, orig. proceeding); see Ex parte Chambers, 898 S.W.2d 257, 259 (Tex. 1995) (explaining that "[c]ontempt of court is broadly defined as disobedience to or disrespect of a court by acting in opposition to its authority"). In Texas, contempt is largely governed by common law, although section 21.002 of the Texas Government Code provides a statutory framework for and limitations on a court's ability to punish for contempt. See Ex parte Reposa, No. AP-75, 965, 2009 Tex Crim. App. Unpub. LEXIS 725, at *12 (Tex. Crim. App. Oct. 28, 2009) (orig. proceeding, not designated for publication) (noting "long-established history in the Texas common law of contempt"); see also In re Reece, 341 S.W.3d 360, 366 (Tex. 2011) (explaining that "[s]ection 21.002 of the Government Code sets forth the only statutory framework for contempt" and that "[a]ny restrictions on this authority are found in the common law"); Ex parte Powell, 883 S.W.2d at 777 (noting that "this doctrine [of contempt] has evolved and developed mainly through the common law, subject of course, to constitutional limits and statutory safeguards").

         There is no right of appeal from an order of contempt. See Ex parte Eureste, 725 S.W.2d 214, 216 (Tex. Crim. App. 1986) (citing prior opinions from court of criminal appeals). When, as in this case, the contemnor is confined, the only remedy available to the contemnor is a writ of habeas corpus. See In re Long, 984 S.W.2d 623, 625 (Tex. 1999); In re Office of Att'y Gen. of Tex., 215 S.W.3d 913, 916 (Tex. App.-Fort Worth 2007, orig. proceeding). In this original proceeding, the State does not dispute that Reposa is generally entitled to seek review of the contempt order against him through the filing of an application for writ of habeas corpus. Instead, the State argues that mandamus relief is warranted because the Williamson County court is not the proper court to review Reposa's application. Based on our review of the Texas Constitution and the relevant case law, we agree.

         The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals possesses the general and unlimited power to issue writs of habeas corpus in criminal cases.[4] See Tex. Const., art. V, § 5; see also, e.g., Ex parte Supercinski, 561 S.W.2d 482, 483 (Tex. Crim. App. 1977) (treating appeal of contempt order as application for writ of habeas corpus and noting court's jurisdiction under article V, section 5 of constitution). This constitutional grant of original jurisdiction "'to issue the writ of habeas corpus' permits [the Court of Criminal Appeals] to review a contempt order entered by a district court" in a criminal case.[5] See Ex parte Thompson, 273 S.W.3d 177, 180 (Tex. Crim. App. 2008) (citing Ex parte Eureste, 725 S.W.2d at 216). Moreover, precedent from the Court of Criminal Appeals establishes that it is the only court with the authority to review a direct-contempt order in a criminal case. See Ex parte Eureste, 725 S.W.2d at 216 ("The proper course of review from a contempt order entered by a district court is by original application for writ of habeas corpus."); Ex parte Ramsey, 642 S.W.2d 483, 484 n.1 (Tex. Crim. App. 1982) (same, citing article V, section 5 of constitution); Ex parte Moorehouse, 614 S.W.2d 450, 451 (Tex. Crim. App. 1981) ("The normal course of any review of a contempt order 'regarding criminal law matters' is by original application for writ of habeas corpus filed in this court.").[6]

         In light of the exclusive authority held by the Court of Criminal Appeals to review contempt orders, we conclude that the respondent trial court judge lacks any authority to take action on Reposa's application for writ of habeas corpus and, in fact, had a ministerial duty to refrain from granting Reposa's motion for leave to file an application. Further, except in limited circumstances, the State may not appeal from a trial court's decision to grant habeas relief. State v. Reyes, 115 S.W.3d 229, 231 (Tex. App.-Fort Worth 2003, pet. ref'd) ("Ordinarily, a respondent in a habeas corpus case may not appeal from an adverse ruling."); see Tex. Code Crim. Proc. art. 44.01(k) (listing circumstances under which State may appeal in criminal cases, including "an order granting relief to an applicant for a writ of habeas corpus under Article 11.072"); id. art. 11.072 (writ ...


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