Judge: Attorney Sandra Thompson not in contempt of court

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch
York attorney Sandra Thompson

At the close of a brief hearing Wednesday, York County Common Pleas Judge Craig T. Trebilcock ruled that local attorney Sandra Thompson was not in contempt of court last week.

The judge, at the end of the less-than-10-minute hearing, said he accepted Thompson's apology and expression of "sincere remorse," then closed the matter.

Although he initially found her in contempt on Friday, Nov. 22, he said at Wednesday's hearing that Thompson had not been given a chance to respond prior to his initial contempt finding, so he withdrew that and noted it was premature.

"We appreciate the judge also reflecting on the situation and vacating the contempt order," said attorney Suzanne Smith, who represented Thompson at the 1:30 p.m. hearing on Wednesday, Nov. 27.

During the hearing, Smith told the judge that her client wasn't trying to be disrespectful to the court and that civility and decorum in the courtroom is something Thompson believes is important.

Her mind, at the time, was in "trial mode," Smith said, adding that Thompson has now had time to reflect.

"I was not acting intentionally or willfully against the court," Thompson told Trebilcock. "The court regarded some of my conduct as being disrespectful to the court. That was not my intention."

Smith then asked the judge to accept Thompson's "sincere apology ... and take no further action in this case."

Trebilcock noted that judges have the power to hold people in contempt of court as a means to preserve order, civility and decorum in courtrooms.

However, a contempt finding "should not be retaliatory," he said.

"Counsel has apologized and expressed sincere remorse," the judge said. "There's no reason for this matter to go any further."

York County Common Pleas Judge Craig T. Trebilcock

The background: Trebilcock initially held Thompson in contempt of court and ordered her locked up after she continued asking him questions after being told to sit down and be quiet.

Thompson told The York Dispatch she wasn't handcuffed and that deputies placed her in a holding cell connected to Trebilcock's courtroom.

At the time, she was defending a client charged with aggravated assault; he was subsequently acquitted of all charges.

Thompson spent 25 minutes in the holding cell before being released by the judge.

The exchange happened while the jury was outside the courtroom.

After Trebilcock refused to admit evidence Thompson was arguing for, Thompson continued asking him if it could be admitted under a different rule of law.

"You're not listening to me," the judge replied. "I have already ruled."

But Thompson persisted, saying she needed to be clear.

"Denied," the judge replied. "We are not going to go through this because you don't know the rules of evidence. ... This two-day trial is already in its third day because counsel is not prepared."

"I'm sorry, your honor," Thompson replied. "Can you say specifically, since you made a broad statement of how I'm not prepared, would you say it on the record how I have not been prepared?"

"Oh yeah, let's go over that," Trebilcock said. "You didn't show up to trial on time, you left your client sitting there without counsel on the first day of trial. Second, you have been rambling around on the record asking unfocused questions. You didn't know how to move for introduction of evidence under the right rule. Those would be three examples right off the cuff. Anything else?"

Thompson replied, "Is there anything else you'd like to put on the record?"

'Sit down': That prompted Trebilcock to say, "I'm not being deposed by you. Sit down."

Thompson started to say something else, but the judge stopped her, saying, "Sit down and be quiet."

Thompson again tried to speak, but was cut off.

"Counsel, I gave you directions to sit down and be quiet," Trebilcock said. "If you continue to disobey my order you're going to be held in contempt."

When Thompson tried to ask the judge another question, he responded, "Counsel, you are held in contempt."

Trebilcock ordered Thompson taken into custody at 9:38 a.m. and allowed her to be released at 10:03 a.m.

Thompson last week said there's no bad blood between her and the judge and that what happened Friday stemmed from a discussion Wednesday in Trebilcock's chambers about an evidentiary issue in the trial.

"I may not have immediately sat down the second he told me," she said. "It took a minute to process (what was happening)."

She also said she was a few minutes late but isn't routinely late for court. She said she should have been given an hour to get to court but was given slightly less than that.

As far as her level of preparation, Thompson told The York Dispatch, "I believe I was very prepared for trial."

About Thompson: Thompson, who is president of the York NAACP and owns her own law firm, made national headlines when police were called on her and four other black women at a Dover Township golf course in April 2018.

They alleged discrimination after former York County Commissioner Steve Chronister, whose family owns  Grandview Golf Course, called the police after the five wouldn't leave. Chronister said he believed they were playing too slowly and were delaying other golfers. 

The complaints prompted hearings from the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission last year.

Thompson recently lost a bid to be elected a York County common pleas judge, losing to Matt Menges.

Disciplined: The state Supreme Court's disciplinary board ordered Thompson receive a public reprimand for making "material misstatements of facts" to clients she represents in a civil lawsuit.

The board said she violated seven rules of professional conduct.

Stacey Witalec, spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, said a public proceeding for the reprimand will happen but has not yet been scheduled.

— Reach senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.