Unsealed transcript sheds light on hard feelings between Oklahoma County judge, district attorney's office

In an unsealed transcript of a September criminal hearing, Oklahoma County District Judge Tammy Bass-Lesure says she would step down from the case because she refused to hear any more cases prosecuted by the district attorney and his top two assistants.

Assistant prosecutors had asked Bass-Lesure to step down from the criminal case on Sept. 8 because the defense attorney was one of three attorneys the judge had recommended to a criminal defendant with a pending case assigned to her.

After what appears to have been a heated exchange with the prosecutors, Bass-LeSure ordered the transcript of the hearing sealed. On Sept. 20, Judge Lisa Davis signed an order releasing the transcript "to the State of Oklahoma."

FOX 25 News in Oklahoma City reported last week on the transcript being sealed. Even though the transcript had been unsealed, the news station was not able to obtain a copy until Friday.

As the station noted Monday night, the transcript reveals hard feelings between the judge and the district attorney's office.

At one point, Bass-Lesure accused Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Chance of having verbally attacked her after Bass-Lesure was asked to step down from the high-profile murder trial of an Oklahoma City pharmacist.

Chance pointed out to Bass-Lesure that she was out of town when that occurred. It was Chance's boss, District Attorney David Prater, who had made the comments Bass-Lesure complained about.

An investigation by Prater's office had found that Bass-Lesure gave a defendant the names of three attorneys even though he had a drug case assigned to her. The Oklahoman reported:

Prosecutors had the gym trainer wear a hidden microphone July 22 to record a conversation with the judge. Prosecutors told the judge this week they would file a judicial complaint against her, sources have said. One attorney listed by the judge is representing the pharmacist.

A group of black pastors and community leaders then called for a civil rights investigation of Prater for "going after" Bass-Lesure and another black judge.

In response to that criticism, Prater said of Bass-Lesure:

What became obvious to us is that the State of Oklahoma was not going to be able to get a fair trial due to some alleged activities by the judge in [the murder trial of the pharmacist]. It's incredibly unfortunate that this judge did this. It's incredibly irresponsible, it's immoral and it's corrupt. And it's her fault -- her fault, no one else's -- that we're in this situation right now.

A week after the Sept. 8 hearing, it was announced that Bass-Lesure would no longer hear criminal cases as of Jan. 1. Instead, she will take over probate, guardianship and adoption cases.

During the hearing Sept. 8, Bass-Lesure seemed to imply that Chance was incompetent, questioning why every time she appeared before the judge she was accompanied by either Prater or First Assistant District Attorney Scott Rowland.

Chance said they accompanied her only in cases involving the particular defense attorney because he had yelled at her. The defense attorney then interjected that he had yelled her name in a courthouse hallway only after she had been rude and then walked away without acknowledging his request.

As for the argument with Chance and Rowland on Sept. 8, Bass-Lesure told FOX 25 News that she didn't say or do anything inappropriate but wouldn't explain why she sealed the transcript.

The transcript should never have been sealed, and her order doing so would not have survived a legal challenge. Federal courts have said judicial documents are presumptively open to the public and may be sealed only if that right to access is outweighed by the compelling need to protect higher interests. No compelling reason existed in this situation.

Instead, reading the transcript reminded me of Daniel Tosh's parody of a childish insult, "I'm
better than you, na-na, na-na, boo-boo, go stick your head in doo-doo."

Better behavior is expected of those responsible for administering justice in our courtrooms.

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Media & Strategic Communications

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.