Oklahoma judges facing legal action over secret meetings
OKLAHOMA CITY (KOKH) —
Some judges may end up on the other side of the bench after a claim filed by an Oklahoma City attorney.
Attorney Alex Bednar filed the notice he was pursuing legal action against three Oklahoma County Judges and one Canadian County judge Monday afternoon. The case comes after more than a year of legal wrangling in a foreclosure case that involved transfers to multiple judges and still-pending legal challenges.
“Just because I may not be someone the judges like it doesn't mean that they have the right to do this to me or to my daughter,” Bednar told FOX 25.
Bednar is rebuilding his law practice after being suspended for a year. He still disputes the issues that led to the suspension, but said at the time he thought submitting to the discipline would be preferable to fighting the case. However, he says it has been difficult to overcome the stigma placed on an attorney who was subject to discipline.
Those challenges only complicated his financial situation, which led to his home going into foreclosure. Bednar said he tried to sell off some of his property, but the mortgage company refused to accept the sale which could have erased his past-due debt.
Bednar was preparing his defense in the mortgage case which he had planned to argue before Oklahoma County District Judge Don Andrews. However before a hearing where Bednar was going to argue he should have the ability to challenge the foreclosure and avoid a default judgement, the case was transferred out of Oklahoma County to Canadian County and Judge Paul Hesse.
“I received a call at 2:33 p.m. from Judge Andrews' office, I went and got my phone records to confirm,” Bednar said, “I had a four-minute phone call from his office where they told me that my matters that were set before him were stricken.”
There was even a court order saying the default hearing Bednar had been preparing for was called off and stricken from the record. Bednar said he was told Judge Hesse would reset the hearing for a later date.
That did not happen. On the day the canceled hearing was scheduled, Bednar said he was working on other cases when by chance he learned he would not be getting a chance to defend himself.
“On June 8, I happened to be coming back from another court and stopped off in Canadian County to set a matter with Judge Hesse at that time he told me he had ruled on the default judgement,” Bednar recalled.
Emails provided to FOX 25 show after Bednar expressed his concern about being ruled against in a hearing that was not scheduled, Hesse asked Judge Andrew’s assistant to change the court order to remove the wording that showed that hearing was canceled. However, Bednar says the judge’s docket showed there was no hearing scheduled and online court records FOX 25 found indicate Judge Hesse never scheduled a hearing for June 8.
“It's basic constitutional rights the right to know about something that has been filed against you,” Bednar said.
Judge Hesse told FOX 25 judicial rules mean he cannot comment on pending cases before him.
Similarly Judge Andrews would not comment on the case, even though the matter is no longer in his court. However, in a conversation with Bednar which was recorded, Andrews makes it clear he had canceled the hearing and told Bednar the hearing would have to be rescheduled before Judge Hesse.
Complicating the case, Bednar said, are meetings the judges involved in his foreclosure have had with the opposing side; meetings he was not invited to attend and meetings where orders against him were approved by judges.
“I would have never thought that judges would find it appropriate to violate local rules to meet privately with attorneys,” Bednar said.
Adding to the confusion is the hierarchy of judges in Oklahoma County. In charge of the judges involved in Bednar’s case is Judge Timothy Henderson. Henderson made headlines last year when he presided over secret court hearings in the appeal of former Oklahoma City cop Daniel Holtzclaw. In that hearing, Henderson met only with prosecutors and did not notify defense attorneys the hearings were happening. It was ultimately ruled there was nothing found in the hearings the defense attorneys needed to know, even though they were not present to ask questions.
In Bednar’s case, Henderson refused to allow him access to a court reporter and filed a time-sensitive ruling two days after ruling on the matter. In his tort claim, Bednar claims Henderson, Andrews and Hesse have all held inappropriate meetings and violated local court rules.
This case, Bednar points out, calls into question how other people who know less about the legal system than he does are treated. It also points to questions about how the public can know if information on the court’s online record keeping system is accurate.
“Apparently the court system itself is not a self-checking mechanism,” Bednar said as he called for an independent review of the Oklahoma County Judicial system. He also believes his case highlights the need for more oversight of judges in Oklahoma and hopes legislators will consider new guidelines during the next legislative session.
In the meantime, Bendar has pending motions before the Oklahoma Supreme Court to overturn some of the questionable rulings. He said he will continue to fight to protect the system he took an oath to uphold.