Harris County civil judges sanctioned for shackling lawyers, irate courtroom outbursts
A pair of Harris County civil court judges have been sanctioned for behavior in their courtrooms, with one judge allowing the shackling of attorneys and another erupting into fits of rage during a trial.
The reprimand applies to Judge Barbara Stalder in the 280th Family Protective Order Court for holding an attorney in contempt during a February 2020 hearing and then ordering the bailiff to shackle him to a chair in the jury box, according to State Commission on Judicial Conduct documents. A week later, the judge did the same with another attorney.
The commission also ordered that Judge Clinton “Chip” Wells in the 312th Family District Court be admonished and undergo two hours of education on how to appropriately conduct himself for courtroom outbursts of anger aimed at lawyer Teresa Waldrop during an April 2019 divorce trial.
Stalder could not be reached Friday as the commission’s ruling from April 20 was made public. Wells acknowledged that his actions were wrong.
“I made a mistake and I’m not hiding from that,” said Wells, who is facing Waldrop in the Democratic runoff election. “My behavior was not acceptable.”
The incident involving Stalder, who in March lost her primary bid, began when she threatened to hold lawyer Derrick Saulsberry in contempt for not answering questions about a profanity-laced conversation that he had with the mother-in-law of his client outside the courtroom. The judge ordered that he apologize in open court and he refused. Stalder told the bailiff to “take Mr. Saulsberry into custody,” the commission wrote.
The bailiff handcuffed Saulsberry to a chair, in full view of the courtroom — including his client. Judge Stalder continued the hearing and Saulsberry remained shackled for about 20 minutes. In a written response to the commission, Stalder confirmed that she told her bailiff to escort Saulsberry to the jury box. But she “did not(?) deny that she ever asked him to take Mr. Saulsberry into custody or that Mr. Saulsberry in fact was shackled at any time.”
The commissioners report includes the question mark in parenthesis in their statement.
While investigating Saulsberry’s claim, the commission learned that lawyer Samuel Milledge was similarly shackled a week later in Stalder’s courtroom for words exchanged with a court employee. The judge lectured Milledge about his behavior and “then read Milledge his rights and had her bailiff escort him to the jury box.”
“After Milledge was shackled in the jury box, Judge Stalder stated to him he would sit there and that she would address a contempt hearing on the matter after the remainder of her morning docket,” the commission continued. A contempt hearing never happened.
Milledge was let go only after calling his son, Samuel Milledge II, also a lawyer, to represent him. The younger Milledge exchanged words with the bailiff, told the judge that his father had a trial to attend and continued to verbally clash with the bailiff.
“Judge Stalder called (Milledge’s son) back to the bench and told him to never step foot in her courtroom again,” the commission wrote, adding that the judge later apologized to the father and son in her chambers.
Milledge, his son, and Saulsberry did not return requests for comment.
Stalder addressed the Milledge incident, telling the commission that “she understood how her reference to setting the matter for contempt and reading Mr. Milledge his rights could reasonably lead a person to believe he was, or was about to be, in custody,” the agency wrote. Stalder stated that she did not know that Milledge had been shackled.
The commission went on to say that Stalder’s behavior casts “public discredit upon the judiciary or the administration of justice.”
Stalder, a Democrat, was elected in 2018.
Public sanctions range from admonitions, warnings and reprimands, the latter of which representing one of the most severe punishment. When sanctioned, the offending judge and complainant are provided a copy of the order, which is then distributed to ensure public awareness, according to the commission’s website.