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A‘Pit Day’ (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


     On 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 Office.

     Mrs. 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.

     With 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.

     Mr. 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.

     Prosecutors 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.

     The 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 ready?
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 work ready.

     With 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.

     The 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.

     If 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.

     Firstly, 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.

     Secondly, 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 docket.

     Thirdly, 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.

     Fourthly, 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.

     To 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.

     This 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 Day–Onuska, 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.

     Why 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 reason–we just don’t know.

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?

2) 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 afternoon?

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?

     To see the full text of the letter, go to Questions for Onuska.” So far, he has refused to answer our questions.