A contempt of court ruling levied against DUI attorney Darryl Genis in July 2013 for calling prosecuting attorney Hannah Lucy “a little girl” was reversed by a panel of three judges with the Court of Appeals. While the judges found fault with Genis’s language and comportment, they determined that Judge Jean Dandona erred on technical grounds in finding him in contempt.
Because court was not in session at the time Genis made his remarks to Lucy, the three judges concluded that Dandona should have made a motion to find Genis in “indirect contempt” rather than direct contempt. While the distinction might seem a case of splitting hairs, those accused of indirect contempt are given an opportunity to wage a defense, presenting witnesses if need be. That chance was not made available to Genis at the time. On that basis, the contempt ruling was reversed.
Genis, the judges found, “should have been afforded the full panoply of rights attendant with indirect contempt proceedings.” In contrast, due process is not provided in direct contempt cases on the grounds that the behavior in question poses an immediate threat to the conduct of a legal process or demeans the integrity of the court. “Appellant’s private statement to the prosecutor, while inappropriate and insulting to her personally, was not an affront to the court as an institution,” the panel wrote. “From a legal standpoint, we agree there is no such thing as contempt of prosecutor — only contempt of court.”
In recent years, Genis has emerged as a headline grabber and lightning rod for criticism by judges and prosecutors, who’ve complained his conduct is frequently disruptive and openly disrespectful. Two criminal judges refused to hear cases involving Genis; another was instructed he was not allowed to hear such cases. A year ago, the state bar ordered Genis suspended for 90 days and placed on two years of probation, citing what it described as “misconduct and his contemptuous attitude.”
Genis — unapologetically loud, bombastic, and confrontational — contends the District Attorney’s Office has been out to get him. And in a couple of high-profile cases, Genis has managed to get the best of prosecutors. In addition, Genis uncovered evidence that one of the Justice Department crime-lab technicians analyzing blood-alcohol levels of defendants charged in DUI cases had a long history of competency issues. Genis managed to unearth documents showing that the technician’s superiors had expressed serious concerns about his capability, effectiveness, and truthfulness going back many years. Genis estimates that technician — who since has resigned — was responsible for 20,000 crime-lab analyses.
In the July 2013 contempt case, Genis had complained twice to Judge Dandona that prosecutor Lucy had been exhaling loudly close to him as a ploy to distract him from his argument. The judge instructed Genis to not get so emotionally heated and to take a few breaths. Dandona then broke for lunch and instructed the two attorneys to finish up when the trial resumed later that day. Before leaving Dandona’s courtroom, Genis told Lucy, “Try to act a little more professional this afternoon.” He claimed she smirked at him in response, prompting him to call her a “little girl.”
When court resumed, Dandona revealed she’d heard the “little girl” remark and termed it “disorderly, contemptuous, or insolent behavior toward me as well as opposing counsel.” She added it constituted “a breach of peace tending to interrupt the due course of this judicial proceeding.”
Genis apologized, saying he “clearly was wrong.” Dandona dismissed his apology as “disingenuous” after Genis explained he’d been provoked and “fell into” Lucy’s trap. Genis also stated Lucy had called him an “asshole” during another court proceeding. Dandona termed Genis’s language, “gender biased” and fined him $1,000.
While the appellate court ruled in Genis’s favor, the judges made it clear they did not condone his remarks. “We would agree with the trial court that appellant violated his duty of civility to opposing counsel” and reminded Genis that all new attorneys take an oath to conduct themselves with “dignity, courtesy and integrity.” In summation, the judges suggested that Genis “would be well advised to reflect upon it in his practice of law.”
“The California Court of Appeal has vindicated me,” said Genis in response to the ruling. He added, “Ms. Lucy and I have resolved this glitch in our professional relationship. I apologized and she accepted and we work well together with mutual respect.”
This marks the second close call Genis had with a contempt charge this year. It also marks the second time in which he successfully argued that the rules applying to indirect contempt cases were not properly observed. This summer, Judge Brian Hill cited Genis for contempt after Genis appeared to shuffle and photograph the papers of prosecuting attorney Justin Greene during a break. Relations between Genis and Greene are especially bleak and acrimonious and have given rise to a blizzard of contempt charges and counter-charges.
In the case in question, a courtroom camera caught Genis in the act. But when the charge went before Judge Donna Geck, Genis and his attorneys argued successfully that because the alleged offense did not take place in front of Hill or when court was in session, it, too, would be bound by the rules governing indirect contempt. This caught Geck — not to mention the flotilla of prosecuting attorneys on hand to observe what they believed would be Genis’s final undoing — completely flat-footed. Genis pleaded not guilty. When it turned out no one had been assigned to prosecute the contempt case, Geck said she had no choice but to rule in his favor.
Still undecided is Genis’s fate with regard to the State Bar’s disciplinary action. Genis appealed his suspension, arguing it was not justified and too extreme. State Bar prosecutors appealed, as well, arguing just the opposite. In December, Genis and the prosecutors presented their respective cases before the State Bar court. To date, no ruling has been issued, but Genis expressed confidence that its eventual outcome would be favorable.