NEW ORLEANS -- An Orleans Parish Civil District Court judge sentenced a man to 11 days in Orleans Parish Prison last week during a contempt hearing that was closed to the press and the public, raising questions about Sixth Amendment rights to an “open trial” and about an elected judge’s power to seal court records.
Judge Sidney Cates IV held Dean Gilbert Jr. in contempt Thursday after ordering Gilbert’s family, friends and a WWL-TV reporter out of the courtroom. Gilbert has been in a protracted battle with his brothers over his mother’s estate, representing himself in court and filing thousands of documents challenging Cates’ rulings at nearly every turn.
Cates was clearly exasperated by what he called Gilbert’s “frivolous” filings and by what he considered “insulting” allegations about him and the law firm opposing Gilbert in this family succession case. But the judge took the unusual step last year of sealing the entire case record after three years of open hearings and public filings. Cates said in an April 2015 hearing that he was sealing the record “as punishment” for Gilbert’s contemptuous filings and behavior, according to a court transcript.
In that April 2015 transcript, Cates gave three examples of specific language Gilbert had put in the court record that he found insulting: “The judge’s patron law firm;” “the judge's allowing the administrator to do unlawful acts and condoning them;” and "the Court is in collusion with its patron law firm."
The comments about the law firm referred to Baldwin, Haspel, Burke & Mayer, the firm representing Gilbert’s brothers in the case, which had donated a total of $1,900 to three of Cates’ previous political campaigns, according to state campaign finance records. That's small potatoes compared with dozens of other firms which, along with individual lawyers and others, combined to give more than $200,000 to Cates in the 2002, 2005 and 2008 elections.
It’s not unusual for a civil court judge to hold litigants in contempt for insulting the judge, disobeying court orders or making baseless claims. What is very unusual is the sealing of the entire case over such “insulting, abusive and discourteous language.”
WWL-TV requested and received a list of all civil court cases that were sealed in their entirety in Orleans, Jefferson and St. Tammany parishes between Jan. 1, 2012 and Dec. 31, 2015. Out of more than 100,000 cases handled in those courts over that time, court clerks could only identify two that have been completely sealed by a judge’s own motion.
One was a medical case where the names of the litigants weren’t even public, and the other was the succession of Gilbert’s mother, Bernadette Gaines Gilbert.
WWL-TV asked last fall to talk to Cates and opposing counsel about the reason for sealing the case, but they declined to address anything about it, precisely because it was sealed. But Gilbert provided the news station with many of the key documents to which he still had access as a litigant in the case.
When Cates first held Gilbert in contempt of court last year, he suspended a 48-hour jail sentence and ordered him to stop contacting court staff directly and to stop filing contemptuous documents. He warned Gilbert that another violation could mean imprisonment.
And last month, the judge issued an order stating that Gilbert had done it again, by filing more “insulting” documents and directly communicating with court staff.
Cates called Gilbert in for another contempt hearing, which was held last week. The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees defendants a public trial if they are charged with criminal contempt, which includes any contempt charge punishable by jail time, even in civil court proceedings.
But Cates told the people in the courtroom who were not parties in the case -- including a WWL-TV reporter, Gilbert’s cousin, aunt and uncle and a friend of Gilbert’s -- that they would have to leave before the contempt hearing. The reporter asked the judge how a contempt hearing, where jail time is a possible sentence, can be closed to the public, but Cates said he would not entertain the question and ordered the courtroom closed.
When Gilbert emerged about an hour later, he was being led out in handcuffs by a sheriff’s deputy.
WWL-TV interviewed Gilbert as he was being led to a squad car.
“He emptied everyone out of the courtroom and sentenced me without anyone there to witness what he was doing,” Gilbert said. “Specifically, I wasn't supposed to contact a court reporter and ask her for a transcript, and he sentenced me to jail for that.”
After that, Cates suddenly decided to unseal the entire case record. The reason he gave was similar to the one he gave for sealing it in the first place: Because of Gilbert's contempt, and because he had tried to "misrepresent the contents of the record."
The five-volume case record shows that Gilbert was approved as administrator of his mother’s estate by a different judge in 2012, then removed by Cates when Gilbert’s brother in Michigan intervened and claimed Gilbert hadn’t followed the proper procedure to be administrator. Gilbert was not at the hearing when he was removed as administrator and replaced by his brother. The court record says Gilbert could not be located to be notified of the hearing.
For the next four years, the record is replete with Gilbert’s accusatory filings, including several attempts to have Cates recused from the case, including an appeal that was rejected by a higher court. Cates also complains about “irrelevant criticism of this Court” in a completely different case, where Gilbert sought to have another judge recused.
While holding him in contempt the first time, Cates said he made every effort to give Gilbert “a day in court on the relevant issues in this case,” but Gilbert had "interfered with the system and the way this process works enough.”