(In every sense of the word)
For pure courtroom nastiness,
this case takes the prize,
as Onuska uses the bench
to publically humiliate a young
25 September 1996, Judge Onuska was presiding over the juvenile
“pit day” (docket call) in Farmington. There was an
extremely large docket (cases set for court) that day, most of which
were agreed guilty pleas. The prosecutor assigned to handle juvenile
cases was Senior Trial Prosecutor Sandra Price. A few weeks before,
Yvette Sais hired on with the D.A.’s Office, and was assigned
to work under Mrs. Price. This was Miss Sais’ first job as
a lawyer, and she was the most junior member of the D.A.’s
Price at that time was running for district attorney against her
boss, Alan Whitehead. One or two days before 25 September, Mr. Whitehead
suddenly suspended Mrs. Price, allegedly as a disciplinary action
over an incident that had occurred two years before. This action,
of course, coming as it did just a few weeks before the November
election, provoked an enormous amount of talk around the courthouse.
In fact, the whole county was talking about it.
Mrs. Price suddenly out of the office, it fell to Miss Sais to handle
the docket alone. A local defense attorney, Ray Archambeau, called
Miss Sais the day before the pit day to make sure his plea agreement
concerning a client named Finch was still on track. When Miss Sais
found this file, she discovered it was exceptionally thick, had
many notes in it, and the plea appeared to be quite complex. Because
she was unsure what Mrs. Price had agreed to, and because time was
growing short for her to get ready on an extremely large number
of cases, she asked Mr. Archambeau if they could agree to pass the
case when it came up the next day.
Archambeau understood her predicament completely, and agreed to
pass the case to a later “pit day.” Mr. Archambeau
told her he planned to talk to Judge Onuska later that day, and
he would bring up their agreement. Miss Sais told Mr. Archambeau
that if the judge had a problem with passing this case, to let her
know so she could get ready on it. If she did not hear from him,
she would assume that passing the case was acceptable, and she would
concentrate on getting ready on the balance of the docket. This
was agreed to. That afternoon Archambeau met with Onuska and brought
up his agreement with Miss Sais to pass the Finch case to a later
docket, so she could have time to confer with Mrs. Price. Onuska
voiced no objections.
and defense attorneys routinely work with each other on re-scheduling
cases set on a docket. The unexpected happens (“my client’s
grandmother passed away and her funeral is set for pit day. Can
we pass his case?”) and both sides are agreeable about working
around these problems. The agreement Miss Sais and Archambeau came
to is routinely done in courtrooms everywhere.
next morning Miss Sais went to Judge Onuska’s courtroom.
Besides the usual court personnel, there was a large number of juvenile
defendants present, along with their parents, and a great many attorneys.
Additionally--and significantly--a high school civics class was
present to observe the proceedings. Every seat was taken in the
large courtroom, and there were people standing in the back and
leaning against the walls.
Instead of taking the cases in order,
Judge Onuska called on Mr. Archambeau, and the following conversation
took place :
JUDGE ONUSKA: Mr. Archambeau, are you
MR. ARCHAMBEAU: Thank you your honor. In the matter of
(inaudible) Finch . . .
JUDGE ONUSKA: (Cutting Mr. Archambeau off): You visited
with me about this case yesterday?
MR. ARCHAMBEAU: (Inaudible) . . . yeah. Due to complications
with the D.A.’s Office . . . .
JUDGE ONUSKA: (Cutting Mr. Archambeau off): What complications?
What’s the problem?
MR. ARCHAMBEAU: The ADA handling this case, Sandra Price,
is on leave.
JUDGE ONUSKA: Ah, Miss Sais? Have you not called Sandra
Price about this case?
YVETTE SAIS: Your honor, I have not had an opportunity
to talk to Mrs. Price about this matter . . . .
JUDGE ONUSKA: (Cutting off Miss Sais) Alright, we’ll
recess and let you get a chance to do that--ok? Why don’t
you give her a ring--okay? (At this point, Mr. Archambeau can
be heard trying to interject, but Onuska ignores him and goes
on, saying:) If you would. I would have thought you would have
been ready for this matter.
We’ll be in recess. Thank you very much. Get the paper
that, Judge Onuska stormed out of the courtroom, thereby bringing
everyone else’s business before the court to a standstill
until Miss Sais could contact Mrs. Price.
impression, to those who didn’t know any better (meaning
everyone except Mr. Archambeau) was that Miss Sais was totally unprepared
and incompetent, and that her incompetence had caused this enormous
snafu, which was now delaying everyone else’s business.
one carefully listens to the exchange, it is clear that this was
not a spontaneous outburst. Instead, it was a carefully planned
and staged event, which Judge Onuska used to humiliate a young prosecutor
on her first “solo” appearance in the courtroom.
notice that Onuska took Archambeau’s case out of turn, so
that it was the first one he dealt with. This way he was sure to
have the presence of the high school civics class, who otherwise
might leave at any time. Moreover, being the first case to be heard,
it would have the most interest of the people in the courtroom.
Finally, his declaring a recess and sudden exit from the courtroom,
after having only called this single case, would emphasize his irritation
with Miss Sais, and would heighten the drama of his act.
when Archambeau announced “due to complications in the DA’s
Office . . . .” Onuska cut him off, and asked, “what
complications?” This was clearly a bogus question. Every
aware person in San Juan County knew that Sandra Price, Alan Whitehead’s
opponent in the upcoming D.A.’s race, had been put on leave
by Whitehead. This was a major topic of conversation in the courthouse,
where everyone knew both people. Even if Mr. Archambeau had not
visited with Judge Onuska the day before (which, of course, Onuska
admitted he had), it is simply beyond belief that he did not know
what had happened to Mrs. Price, who was in charge of his juvenile
Onuska’s question of Miss Sais, “Have you not called
Sandra Price about this case?” was also false, as was his
statement, “I would have thought you would have been ready
for this matter.” Onuska was informed the day before that
Miss Sais and Archambeau had agreed to reset the case to a later
docket. It would have been surprising had Miss Sais gone ahead and
spoken to Mrs. Price under the circumstances.
Judge Onuska cut off both Archambeau and Miss Sais when they started
to explain the agreement they had to pass the case--an agreement
he had not objected to the day before. Indeed, it was vitally important
to Onuska’s act before this courtroom audience that what
Archambeau or Miss Sais had to say was not announced to the crowded
courtroom. If the audience knew that there was an agreement worked
out the day before to pass this case, and at that time Judge Onuska
had no objections, then instead of thinking Miss Sais was an incompetent
fool, they would know Judge Onuska was a bully abusing his position,
and was a fraud to boot.
hear the whole thing (which only took 60 seconds) click here, PitSound2.wav.
Bear in mind that the clerk’s office turned off the recorder
once Onuska got up to leave, and turned it on only after he returned.
The people in court were held up in their business for quite a while
before Onuska deigned to return to court.
exchange was tape recorded by the San Juan County District Clerk’s
Office (tel. 334-6151.) A copy of this tape can be purchased from
the Clerk’s Office for $4.00. The tape is entitled “Juvenile
Pit DayOnuska, Case: Finch, Date 9-25-96; tape 1 of 12.”
The relevant part of the tape is at the very start. What is especially
interesting is what happened after Onuska returned to the bench,
and he called the next case. The attorney in that case admitted
he could not find his client, and asks if the judge could pass his
case. Without any histrionics, Onuska obliges.
did Onuska behave in this manner? Perhaps he just couldn’t
resist the opportunity to showboat in front of such a large crowd,
or perhaps he gets a special thrill in using his court to humiliate
people, or perhaps there is some other reasonwe just don’t
This Committee faxed and mailed
Onuska a letter on Sept. 5 asking him these questions:
1) Why did you care if the Finch
case was postponed to a later docket, if both parties were in agreement
to do this? Considering the enormous size of your docket that day,
and the fact that Miss Sais had to suddenly get ready on so many
cases, why did you consider that case so extraordinarily important?
If you did think that it was so all-important that the Finch case
be pled out that day, why didn’t you raise an objection when
Finch’s attorney, Archambeau, informed you of his and Miss
Sais’ plan to reset the case when he met with you the previous
3) Why did you not mind passing the next case on the docket, when
you returned to the courtroom, even though the defendant had apparently
wandered off? What was the difference between these two cases?
4) Why did you throw a temper-tantrum on the bench, and storm out
of the courtroom? Everyone in that courtroom had other things they
had to attend to that day, and they all had to wait on you. Do you
think that behavior is appropriate for a district judge? Why did
you not apologize to everyone in the courtroom for wasting their
time, upon your return?
see the full text of the letter, go to “Questions for Onuska.”
So far, he has refused to answer our questions.