NEW BRAUNFELS — When a protective grandfather leaned into a public restroom to call 207th District Court Judge Jack Robison a fool, he had no idea what was about to rain down — for either of them.
Comal County-based Robison has been issued a private reprimand by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct for throwing Don Bendelman into jail back in June 2009 on what he called a “direct contempt order.”
That order — issued when court was not in session and without the oversight of another judge — was called “problematic” in an opinion issued by Texas’ Third Court of Appeals, because it didn’t appear to meet standards set by the U.S. Supreme Court regarding true “direct contempt.”
It came back to bite Robison last month, when the SCJC rapped him on the knuckles — albeit privately — regarding the case of Don Bendelman.
The rural Lockhart resident, 71, had never been in jail and never arrested, he said. He retired from a career as a safety instructor with Texas A&M University’s Texas Engineering Safety Service.
In June 2009, Bendelman’s son had a custody hearing at the Caldwell County courthouse, with Robison presiding.
Bendelman’s granddaughter was around 13 at the time. Within 15 minutes, Robison ruled for the girl to stay with her mother.
What Bendelman thought was a hasty decision on the judge’s part prompted him to do something out of character.
“I saw him going into the public restroom down the hall ... There was a bailiff outside the door. I just opened the door and stuck my head in. The judge was at the urinal. I said, ‘Judge, you’re a fool if you make my granddaughter go home with that woman.’”
“He said, ‘What the (expletive deleted) are you doing? ... I’m going to arrest your blankety-blank if you don’t get out of here.’
“So I turned around and left. The bailiff walked down the hall behind me, and told me to go out of the building.”
Shaken, Bendelman joined his wife and granddaughter and son and the other witnesses, and Bendelman related what had transpired in the courthouse restroom.
“Two bailiffs came down the sidewalk and told me I was under arrest for ‘direct contempt of court’ and that I would have no bail, no hearing. In other words, I was in jail. Period.
“They placed handcuffs on me,” he recalled. “I was 69 at the time. I was a real threat to them.”
Calls made to Robison’s office were not returned by presstime.
Sent to county jail
Bendelman said the bailiffs took him “into the judge’s courtroom, and one of them stayed with me while the other one went to get the court order from the judge. I never saw the judge again.
“They called for a deputy to come out. A lady came out and handcuffed me — behind my back this time — and they put me in a squad car and took me to the Caldwell County Jail on the edge of Lockhart.”
They took his clothes and gave him an orange jumpsuit to wear, booked him, got a mug shot and put him in a holding cell with a couple of young men wearing off public intoxication.
The holding cell was bright. He got no sleep all night. At 5 a.m., he was placed in a cell with 23 “young kids,” and given the last bunk — a top bunk.
By 8 p.m., his wife had an attorney working to get him out. At 11 p.m., it was “still bright as daylight in there.
“That’s when all the prisoners sort of woke up, started screaming and hollering and having fun,” he recalled.
“I kept saying to myself, ‘You can do this, you can make it.’”
Around midnight, Bendelman had what might be described as a severe panic attack.
In a phone interview Tuesday, he described it as “a nervous breakdown.”
“I started hollering, shaking uncontrollably, pounding on the window and yelling, ‘You got to get me out of here.’”
They took him to sick bay, where there were 12 bunks. Again, he drew a top bunk.
“I told them, ‘I’m going to die,’” he recalled. “I was extremely cold, I was nervous and shaky.
“One of the deputies said, ‘Sit over there and die, we don’t care.’ That was their attitude,” Bendelman said.
Guards put Bendelman in an isolation cell, where he sat on the bed, shaking, finally going to sleep around 3 a.m.
Straight to appeals court
His attorney, John Bennett, bailed him out the next day, taking the case straight to the Third Court of Appeals in Austin, where a ruling let Bendelman out for time served.
Bendelman took the case to the Texas Civil Rights Project in Austin, where an attorney wrote a letter to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.
“This is about all I can do, other than sue the judge. That would be quite a costly thing,” he said.
“On Jan. 27, they sent me a letter. It said that after a thorough review of the issues, the commission voted to issue the judge a private sanction, ‘the details of which we are not authorized to disclose under section 33.032 and 33.033 of the Texas Government Code.’ In other words, they did something, but couldn’t say what they did.”
Disappointed with reprimand
Jim Harrington is director of the Austin-based Texas Civil Rights Project, the organization that helped Bendelman file his complaint. He said the trouble the Third Court of Appeals had with Robison’s “direct contempt order” was that such orders have to relate to order in the courtroom.
“The judge has that power of contempt in the courtroom to maintain order. Once you step outside that door, then the judge doesn’t have instantaneous contempt powers. He can cite someone for contempt, but another judge needs to hear that contempt order,” Harrington said.
Harrington said he was disappointed with the private reprimand. He thought the punishment should have been greater.
“It always strikes me strange (judges) think they’re above criticism and they can take some type of reprisal against someone who criticizes them,” he said.
“They’re under the law, like all of us — they’re bound to respect it like everyone else,” he said.
At the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, executive director Seana Willing couldn’t talk about the case. She estimated that of almost 90 disciplinary actions undertaken by the agency in FY2010, there were 37 “private” actions.
“Our position because of the laws that govern the agency is that we can’t confirm or deny ... unless the commission takes public action. Since the commission hasn’t taken public action with this particular judge, we can’t comment on it,” she said.