I met Theresa Caballero years before I started writing about local politics, so my first impression was of meeting her softer side completely outside the realm of either politics or law.
Whatever politicians in El Paso think of Theresa Caballero- oh, and the opinions are legion- one cannot doubt that when she’s representing a client, that she’s completely focused and single minded. I’ve known a lot of criminal lawyers in El Paso (and worked for one), and Theresa, by far, is one of the most aggressive and confrontational attorneys I’ve ever met, but she also whole-heartedly advocates for her clients.
I’ve really only seen her work in trial once, when my husband’s cousin Nancy Hollebeke (who was also a good friend of mine in high school) was her client. But I can say that if you’ve seen a lot of criminal trials, you can tell that she came up through the DA’s office. A friend of mine who’s a trial lawyer once said that she was one of the toughest and most aggressive DA’s he’s ever worked against. For him, that’s a high compliment.
Her style is aggressive in a way that is different from many of her colleagues. She doesn’t pander with light humor. She doesn’t use cute metaphor or anecdote in a jokey way to sweeten the jury. She doesn’t warm up the audience. She delivers blow-by-blow argument in a way that puts everyone on notice. She’s a stickler for rules and legal precedent that’s beyond academic, but she- like any good defense attorney- will try to draw attention away from allegations and focus attention on the system and its machinations. Theresa in the courtroom is plain intimidating. When a jury likes her, it’s because she seems powerful and authoritative, yet gravely concerned.
Her physical presence helps bring the point home in the courtroom. She is a striking woman: tall, svelte, with a round face and soft features, but the stern posture and command of a Russian ballet mistress. She is always impeccably dressed. Her personal demeanor can range from aloof, to engaging and warm, to manic, to furious depending on whom she is talking to or the subject matter. Many would say she’s equally as intimidating outside the courtroom as in.
I suspect that Theresa agreed to meet with me because of my familial connection with Nan. She loves Nan. And by extension she’s willing to trust me. She generally does not trust journalists. Right now, that means Marty Schladen, political reporter for the El Paso Times.
Before we even sat down at the table at a coffee shop near her office, she was already on about Marty, “I found that his coverage is very biased and dishonest. For example, José Rodriguez [State Senator- former County Attorney] was called to the stand, and I was cross examining him for, I wouldn’t say close to three hours- first of all he left halfway through my cross examination- did he stay? Why didn’t he stay? Secondly, he writes an article saying I asked him [Rodriguez] irrelevant questions… Where did he get this notion that they were irrelevant? Maybe because the other side objected a couple of times to ‘irrelevant’ and the judge sustained it? Which is a normal courtroom whatever? But, my line of questioning is irrelevant? He was on the stand for three hours. Is Marty a lawyer? Marty’s not a lawyer.”
I believe she’s referring to this article where Schladen actually says, “Alvarez on Monday told Brown's attorneys they were cutting into their own time after they asked state Sen. Jose Rodriguez about unrelated matters such as the former county medical examiner, the county ethics commission, and responses he gave to open-records requests when Rodriguez was county attorney.” But, you get the idea.
Theresa is one of Bishop Tom Brown’s attorneys, along with Stuart Leeds- her consummate legal partner in major cases, and on the civil side, Joel Oster of the Alliance Defense Fund.
I was frankly flabbergasted when I found out she was representing Pastor Brown alongside the ADF, because she’s a pretty pragmatic Dem, and a woman who I would never have imagined to have allied herself with such a conservative group. But there she was. So I sought her out to find out why she decided to defend them.
“I think that what you’re doing is a common mistake that people make when they’re dealing with a criminal defense attorney.”
Theresa first heard of Brown while he was pushing his ballot initiative, and then met the slate of candidates his group ran when they went before the Mexican American Bar Association looking for an endorsement, “They were one-issue candidates. They couldn’t speak to taxes. They couldn’t speak to the public service board. They couldn’t speak to police and fire. They couldn’t speak on any of these issues. It was just the one issue. So, we were really rough on them. And of course they didn’t get our endorsement. “
Theresa and Stuart Leeds, with whom she regularly works on big cases voted against the ballot initiative. When City Council voted to vacate the measure, they were livid, “I’m a big believer in the people, and the voice of the people… If we start throwing votes out, we’re getting rid of civilized society.” During Brown’s recall drive, Jaime Esparza launched a preliminary criminal investigation into Brown and El Paso for Traditional Family Values, “So we called him, and said you need some very aggressive criminal defense attorneys. And we’re going to help you and we’re going to do it for free. If you get indicted, we can’t try the case for free.”
Theresa and Stuart then sent a letter to Esparza’s office, demanding that the investigation be dropped and implying a conflict of interest, “Now you have to know that Cook’s daughter is married to Judge Moody’s son, and Judge Moody’s son has a brother Joe Moody who’s running for State Rep…He works for Jaime Esparza. And so we put in our letter, you have a conflict. You have employees related to these people…You’ve got a conflict investigating this.”
On my part, I reminded her that, “It’s honestly kind of hard not to have a conflict in El Paso, though. Everybody within politics in El Paso is kind of related to one another. By blood. You have strains of big political families that are all intermarried. You too, your dad was mayor, and he was a prominent attorney here in town. And so the conflicts of interest are hard to avoid.” My question makes a lot more sense if you know the context.
“It’s really easy to side step them when you’re honest. You say, ‘That’s right. I have this employee in my office. You can go to a judge and have a judge appoint a random employee to handle the case...”
Theresa and Stuart then began to help collect petitions at jury duty. Groups petitioning for a recall have 60 days to collect signatures, “Well, the 60th day fell on a Friday, and City Hall is closed on Friday. So what do you do? Do you wait till Monday…So the idea was that they’d be turned in on Thursday. On Tuesday, Pastor Brown and his people call, and they say, ‘We’ve just been served with a TRO, a temporary restraining order, saying don’t collect anymore petitions, don’t turn them, and Richarda Momsen, City Clerk, don’t receive them’… That’s Cook. That’s part of his lawsuit. He got a judge to sign a TRO saying don’t collect anymore- two days before they’re due…
“They waited till the very end, because they’re thinking there’s no way these people are going to be able to find a lawyer to go do this and to go do that. And we don’t do Civil work, but they naturally came to us because we were representing Pastor Brown on the criminal investigation, and so what we did was do a motion to undo the TRO, and we went to the judge, and he had a hearing the next day and he said, “Okay, you can continue to collect, you can turn them in, and Richarda Momsen, I’m ordering you to receive them.”…
“At that point we told our client, ‘Look, we don’t do civil work. Now we’re all sucked into this and we don’t do civil work. Now we’re all sucked into this and we don’t do civil work. You need to go and find a law firm that represents chuches. And they’re out there, but we can’t carry this. We don’t know what to do. We’re criminal defense attorneys. That’s how we got involved. So they contacted ADF, and the Alliance Defense Fund called us, and they’re like, ‘what’s going on?’ …We do criminal defense. We handle people accused of rape. We can’t take this on. So they came down. Joel Oster came down. And we’re local council. Stuart and I are local council. We’ve been helping, and this how we go involved.”
Over the many years I’ve been writing in El Paso, Theresa’s name has nearly universally brought lawyers and politicians of all stripes to bristle. She’s portrayed as a paranoid, aggressive svengali.
Obviously, she does not see herself that way. Regarding the former, it probably doesn’t help that her office door has two bolts and a peep hole. But, if her clients do, they hired her despite or because of those qualities.
But that’s not what this really is about. The real butt of her opponent’s disdain boils down to something that can’t be danced around. There are plenty in the political community that have speculated that she allies herself on whatever side of an issue that is in direct conflict with her father, Ray Caballero (our mayor from 2001-2005), and his allies. I asked her very frankly about their relationship and whether that had anything to do with her political allegiances. She, unsurprisingly, did not wish to comment. But in an El Paso Times article “Divorce leaves rift between Caballero, children,” dated Feb 27, 2001, David Crowder opens with: “Ray Caballero said he hoped details of his bitter 1988 divorce and estrangement from his five adult children would not be pushed out into the open if he ran for mayor. But he expected they would. And now they have.”
The article goes on to detail the kind of post-divorce family strife that mid-century authors love to emulate in their novels. From the account in the article, after the divorce was finalized, Ray’s two oldest daughters- Jennifer and Theresa- refused to speak with him, and he cut them off of his health insurance plan and discontinued payments towards their college educations. He continued supporting his other three children (Deborah, Raymond and Elizabeth)- to the tune of $379,000- including payments for his daughter Deborah’s tuition at Pomona College. He also was current with child support payments to his minor children.
There was some question as to whether health insurance had been cut off to all the children for a time, and not just Theresa and Jennifer. If that was the case, Deborah would have been most affected since she suffered from Grave’s disease. In the article, Ray Caballero produced receipts and bank statements to the journalist David Crowder, showing that the minors and Deborah were accounted for, but couldn’t remember if their coverage had lapsed while the divorce was being finalized.
While he was campaigning for mayor, Theresa called into KROD (an AM talk station) twice to denounce her father on a program hosted by former councilwoman Barbara Perez, and co-hosted by political machinist Jaime Perez. Barbara Perez openly supported Caballero’s opponent Larry Francis, and Ray Caballero felt like Francis was behind Theresa’s media campaign.
This, obviously, left a bad taste in the mouths of most in the political community, and she had a hard time receiving the kind of political support she needed when she ran against Jaime Esparza for District Attorney. She pretty much had her ass handed to her, but that campaign produced the single most awesome political quote I’ve ever heard in my life:
Theresa is currently running for office again, this time as Judge for Criminal District Court #1.
“I was raised in El Paso, I went to Catholic schools here, and then I went to College in New York City- I went to Barnard, I graduated from Barnard and I went to UT Law, and I did my Law School there. And then I went to Washington DC, and I worked for Congressman (Ron) Coleman, a Democrat, for a year, in his DC office. And then I went to Asia for two years, and taught English in Taiwan for a year and traveled for a year, and then I came back and worked for the DA, Jaime Esparza for three years and then I left that office and went into private practice. And I’ve been in private practice since 1998…
“Stuart is from NY, he went to public schools in New York City- he’s from Brooklyn, then he came to UTEP, graduated from UTEP, then he went to UT Law, graduated from UTEP with high honors, graduated from UT Law with honors, came to El Paso, got a job at the DA’s office working for Steve Simmons. His experience is unbelievable, actually. You should have him go down his resumé, when he comes. I can’t do justice to it. But he’s been in private practice since 1994.
“He went into private practice in 1994 and I went into private practice in 1998, but we are not partners. We do not share an office…
“But what we’ve become known for is taking cases that nobody else wants or that nobody else would do a good job on. We take the crumbs that people throw onto the floor, and that’s our specialty…
“I’m a lawyer, and my personal beliefs have nothing to do with my representations of clients, other than- I’m about the process and respecting the law. And I’ll tell you this…Well into this Pastor Brown case well into the hearings, I have a client charged with theft- with shoplifting. Misdemeanor. And his name is Jimmy Leza, and we go into court and I’ve been dealing with Jimmy’s case for a couple of years. We go into court, and today, jury trial’s going, and everybody [on the docket has] sort of pled out and our case is last. And Jimmy’s been telling me, ‘I didn’t steal.’…
“[Leza] makes money off of drag shows…She’s gorgeous… Her boyfriend had stolen, but she paid for her things, which was $80 worth of groceries... He stole a bunch of meat. That’s his deal. But she was afraid. ‘Oh, no, no, no.’ I’m like, ‘Jimmy, just trust me on this’…
“She has gorgeous hair. Makeup- to die for. A manicure job like you’ve never seen. And she was wearing this low-cut black sweater with a belt and this black pencil skirt that went to her knee, and stiletto black heels, no stockings. Beautiful legs. And she just sat there, her hair up in a bun, beautiful. So the State’s doing its voir dire [jury selection], and there’s lady in the panel who works for the City. And I knew I wanted her off, because it’s a cop case. She works for the City. Cops work for the City- whatever.
“So she on her own says, ‘Yeah, I can’t be fair to the defendant. I don’t like her attorneys. They represent Pastor Brown.’ And we had just had a hearing the day before. ‘They represent Pastor Brown and I don’t like them.’ So I’m going to hold it against them and I can’t be fair. And she actually said, ‘I thought I could be fair, but as I’m sitting here I realize I can’t. I just don’t like the attorneys.’…
“So they do their voir dire. I get up. ‘You see ladies and gentlemen, let me tell you a little something about practicing law…I’m glad she said that. I appreciate her honesty. I do and so does my client because that is what this practice is about. Yesterday I’m representing Tom Brown and everybody believes Tom Brown doesn’t like homosexuals and because I’m his lawyer, I must not like homosexuals. So my client’s beliefs get impuded to me. Rightfully or wrongfully. So I have Jimmy Leza here. Who here thinks Jimmy’s a woman? And you see these hands going like this [MIMES TEPID HAND RAISING]. My client is a man. He’s trans-sexual, as you can see. He’s accused of theft. I’m very proud to be representing him…
“And I said so, here we are, and some of you don’t like homosexuals. And you’re not going to like me, because I’m representing a homosexual. Yesterday I’m representing the anti-homosexual and today I’m representing a man who is becoming a woman. So let’s get it out on the table. Who here believes that my client is more likely believes here that my client is more likely to be a thief because he’s transgender, than somebody who’s not transgender?’
“And some people raised their hands…I said, ‘You see, damned if you do, damned if you don’t.’ And there was one man. An older man, Hispanic, kinda blue collar, and he raised his hand. And I’m talking about who can’t be fair to my client, and he raised his hand and I’m like, uh-oh. Here it comes. And he stood up and I said, Mr. Lopez. And he goes, ‘Miss Caballero, everybody deserves a defense.’ And I go, ‘I like you.’ And he sat down.
“And we picked a jury- four men- very unusual. Cause El Paso’s women-heavy and our juries are women-heavy. Four men. Two women. Not guilty. Not guilty…
“Let me tell you something. The prosecutors are pretty pissed that I brought out my client’s gender in voir dire, because they had her mugshots- were awful, and they were going to show what- see, see it’s really a man. They were going to spring it on the jury during the trial and they wanted to convict her based on the fact that she’s transgender. And that’s what they were going to do. And I took that away from them…
“My beliefs are- you’re my client, you’re going to get great representation.”
Caballero and Leeds are currently facing disciplinary action stemming from their representation of Judge Regina Arditti, May of last year. During the trial, visiting Judge Steven Smith of Brazos County held Caballero and Leeds in contempt 11 and 7 times respectively. Caballero was charged $5,000 in fines, and Leeds $2,750 for contempt charges citing open hostility with the judge, sarcasm and rude remarks, specifically Caballero and Leeds accusation that an email they received from Smith was racist. From Caballero’s blog: “The statement was, ‘Court shall convene at 8:30 a.m. While that might be earlier than what you’re used to in El Paso County, I am sure you can acclimate if it is.’” [http://www.theresacaballero.com/2011/03/problems-with-judge-steven-smith-brazos-tx-re-arditti-case/]
It may have been an innocent remark on the Judge’s part. It would be easy to read into it, though, as many Texans (including El Pasoans) like to “joke” that we in El Paso work on “Latin Standard Time” or “Mañana Time”.
Accusations notwithstanding, Leeds and Caballero are set to go to jury trial. Caballero will go before the 448th District Court (the court usually presided upon by Regina Arditti), and Leeds will go before County Court at Law #5. Both courts will be presided upon by visiting judges from Midland and Loving respectively. Both are facing disbarment. I wonder if they’ll be going to trial pro se.