44th State Civil District Court Judge Carlos R. Cortez (Handout photo)
Judge Carlos Cortez of Dallas’ 44th District Court lost his battle to keep court records from public view on April 16, when Texarkana’s Sixth Court of Appeals ruled that the records should be unsealed, and then the Dallas County District Clerk’s Office unsealed them. Those records include the sworn statement of a woman who stated that Cortez sexually assaulted her when she was a child and of another woman who said Cortez gave her money to buy cocaine.
Cortez did not return a telephone call seeking comment. But he repeatedly has argued before a trial court―and twice before the Sixth Court―that the women’s statements were false and that disclosure of the women’s statements would portray him in a false light and violate his right to privacy.
In a deposition transcript that was also unsealed, he denied ever using cocaine; he denied ever purchasing cocaine; and he denied that he’d ever been charged with indecency with a child, with a felony or with a crime of moral turpitude. Cortez has never faced criminal prosecution in connection with either woman’s allegation, and Texas Lawyer was unable to reach either woman to confirm their allegations.
The documents are related to Cortez v. Johnston, a Nov. 1, 2010, defamation petition Cortez filed against Coyt Randal “Randy” Johnston, a Dallas attorney. Cortez alleged in that petition that Johnston created false rumors about Cortez to attract a political opponent to run against Cortez. Johnston denied those allegations [See "Judge Carlos Cortez Files Defamation, Extortion Suit Against Dallas Lawyer," Texas Lawyer, Nov. 2, 2010, page 1]. Johnston had secured the sworn statements in connection with his defense of Cortez’s allegations.
Johnston, a partner in Johnston & Tobey, said he’s pleased with the Sixth Court’s latest ruling.
“The court reached the result I thought they would. It obviously took a long time and a lot of money. I don’t think anyone will quarrel with the decision of the court,” Johnston said.
Texas Lawyer intervened in the case to gain access to the records. The deposition transcripts released by the Dallas County District Clerk’s Office on April 16 include a Dec. 20, 2010, sworn statement from Crystal Haynes, who alleged Cortez sexually assaulted her when she was a child, beginning when she was “probably 8″ and he was dating her mother.
They also include a Dec. 16, 2010, statement from Melinda Henry, who alleged she met Cortez in 2005, before he became a judge, while she was working as a cocktail waitress at a Dallas strip club. She alleged Cortez personally gave her cash “at least two or three times” so she could buy cocaine and that he would take a bag of cocaine and go into a restroom: “He just took the bag there and would sniffle a lot, you know.” At one point, however, she also said, “Nor can I remember much about that time anymore. I wasn’t always sober.”
Henry also said the two had a sexual relationship, that she went to prison for a year and that she later was on probation for “a drug possession charge, a felony.”
Henry said in the transcript that she had gotten in contact with Johnston when she was angry at Cortez. She claimed she Googled Cortez and “when I saw that Carlos Cortez had filed against someone for defamation of character, well, that’s kind of ironic, so I clicked on it, and I was reading, and I got down to the paragraph where it was Carlos blatantly denied accusations of drugs and―and relations with prostitutes, and as well, I would never―and I had unfortunately been in both positions. I have a drug charge and I have a misdemeanor of prostitution charge from back when I was 22, 23. So, I was sitting there going, well, that’s not right.” .
Cortez’s civil attorneys, Andrew Korn, a partner in Dallas’ Korn Diaz Firm, and Frank Gilstrap, a partner in Arlington’s Hill Gilstrap, did not return one call each seeking comment. Pete Schulte, a partner in Dallas’ Schulte & Apgar who represented Cortez in another legal matter, also declined to comment.
Neither Henry nor Haynes could be located for comment. The individual identified as the mother of Haynes in Haynes’ statement did not return a call for comment.
The Dallas County Clerk’s Office also released the transcript of a Jan. 17, 2011, deposition of Cortez. Cortez alleged in his deposition that Johnston made defamatory statements about him in a complaint Johnston filed with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct―a complaint that was later dismissed. [See "Conduct Complaint Against Dallas Judge Dismissed," Texas Lawyer, Jan. 17, 2011, page 1.] Cortez claimed in his deposition that Johnston defamed him.
“I think it was the last page of the complaint where he said I hired prostitutes or do drugs―and do drugs. Those two comments, I believe, are defamatory and that is the basis of this complaint,” Cortez said in the deposition.
During Cortez’s deposition, Randy Nelson asked Cortez about both Haynes’ and Henry’s allegations. Nelson is a partner in Dallas’ Thompson Coe Cousins & Irons who represents Johnston.
Cortez said he is an “acquaintance” of Henry but denied ever using cocaine with her.
“I have never used any illegal drug ever. And specifically no, not cocaine,” Cortez said in the deposition.
Cortez also acknowledged that he had dated the mother of Haynes, knew Haynes and was investigated for “his conduct” with Haynes, but he declined to discuss who investigated him or for what “conduct.” His lawyers did not allow him to answer any further questions about the investigation, deeming them “not relevant to the proceeding ” and “ harassing and abusive.”
Haynes alleged in her statement that Cortez lived with her family on and off for “three to four years” before he became a judge and would play “games” with her while her mother was away. As part of the games, according to Haynes’ statement, he would blindfold her, make her lay with her hands behind her back and would straddle her and sometimes stick food in her mouth and would then “use his bodily parts.”
“He would use his penis, and he would stick
it in my mouth,” Haynes said in the statement. “Were you investigated for having put your penis in Crystal Haynes’ mouth when she was 10 to 12 years old?” Nelson asked.
“On the advice of counsel, I’m not going to answer those questions,” Cortez said.
The release of the records brings an end to the three-year appellate battle Cortez has waged to keep the documents out of the public eye. In the Sixth Court’s April 16 decision, the justices noted that, in Cortez’s defamation claim against Johnston, Cortez made a discovery request of Johnston asking for any records that justified his allegations against the judge. In response, Johnston filed various records with the district clerk.
“Unexpectedly faced with the imminent disclosure of evidence sullying the very reputation he had sought to protect by pursuing his libel suit against Johnston, Cortez immediately nonsuited his complaint against Johnston and asked that the produced documents be sealed,” wrote Josh Morriss, chief justice of the Sixth Court, who was joined by Justices Jack Carter and Bailey Moseley.
Cortez twice appealed the issue of sealing the court documents after a trial judge ruled the documents were “court records” that should be open to the public. Cortez argued that release of the records would violate his privacy rights. Both times the Sixth Court denied his requested relief. Specifically, in the April 16 ruling, the Sixth Court found that the trial judge who presided over Cortez’s case did not abuse his discretion under Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 76a, which governs the sealing of court records, by ruling the documents were “court records” and therefore available to the public.
“None would argue that these documents are not embarrassing and offensive. Balanced against that, Cortez is clearly a public figure who is, at present, an elected official whose privacy rights are limited by virtue of his public status,” Morriss wrote. “The trial court sought to balance the interest in privacy against the public interest in disclosure, in light of the historical preference that court proceedings be open to the public absent a strong reason to close or keep them from the public.”
Morriss wrote, “We cannot say, taking all of these matters together, that the trial court abused its discretion by concluding that Cortez’s interest in privacy did not clearly outweigh the presumption of openness and the reasons underlying its existence.”
“We are extremely pleased with the court’s ruling,” said Joe Larsen, special counsel at Sedgwick in Houston, who represents Texas Lawyer and The Dallas Morning News, which also intervened to obtain access to the records. “Cortez’s long odyssey of delay is over, and the citizens of Texas will finally be able to see these matters of genuine public interest.”
101st District Judge Marty Lowy also intervened to gain access to the records. Lowy intervened after Cortez, in his original petition, accused Lowy of creating “rumors” about him to draw a political opponent―allegations Lowy denied.
“It’s probably a good thing that it’s over,” Lowy said of the Sixth Court’s ruling.
Both Cortez and Lowy lost their reelection bids in the March 4 Democratic Primary. The Dallas County Democratic Primary elections were remarkable because every male judicial candidate―including Cortez and Lowy―lost by wide margins to female challengers [See "Dallas Primary Judicial Election Results Show 'Women Rule,'" Texas Lawyer, March 10, 2014, page 1.]