Contempt of Court

Contempt orders are in the air. Politicians lawyer up. Months, even years go by before a final Court decision is rendered. But for some, justice is swift.

The story: on August 1, 1975, two young Public Defenders stood before a Judge and refused to obey his Order. Within minutes, they were handcuffed and placed behind bars. On June 21 of this year, one of these Defenders, a man I admired and loved, died too young, Attorney Peter Rosenwald.

Pete joined the staff of the Public Defender Division of the Legal Aid Society soon after passing the bar in 1973. Jack Sherman, later to become Judge Jack Sherman, had been chosen to be Director of the office. He and I, as Assistant Director, were running the show, the first fully staffed Public Defender Office in Cincinnati.* We hired bright young talent, men and women eager to test their mettle and committed to provide vigorous defense for defendants without funds to retain counsel. It quickly became clear to us that there was no need to urge these fledgling lawyers to be diligent in their advocacy. For them it was not a job, it was a calling.

From here on, this story is told by Dick Gasen, another of our Public Defenders and Pete’s friend and colleague at the bar. Both had responsibility as team leaders for those who had more recently joined the staff.

Gasen: “Friday morning, August 1, 1975, started out as a typical day for a couple of Public Defenders on a busy trial day. Pete and I met about 7:30 a.m. and sat down in my office to drink coffee and discuss the day ahead.  Pete had a prelim on the 9 o’clock docket and had a trial starting at 10 a.m. in Judge Gorman’s room. He was undecided as to whether to go forward with a jury and hoped that the City Attorney on the case would offer a deal, although he felt he had a good chance if he went to trial. We further discussed the events of the day before when one of his team had been summarily appointed by Judge Crush to represent a defendant in a preliminary hearing when the attorney of record was not in the Courtroom when the case was called. His team member was very new and just agreed and represented the defendant on the spot. We both agreed this was so wrong, and we would talk to all our team members about not letting Judge Crush browbeat them into doing such a thing. With that, off we went to another day in the trenches.

I did not see Pete again that morning until, just after finishing a prelim for two guys accused of a bank robbery, I stepped into the lawyer’s lounge next to the Courtroom but came back out when a court clerk came in looking for two of our staff whose case was being called. Upon my return to the courtroom, I was spotted by Judge Crush and immediately appointed to represent both of the defendants in the preliminary hearing that had been called. After telling Judge Crush that I could not do so but would make a effort to find the members of our staff that in fact were the lawyers of record for the two defendants, Pete, who had been waiting for his case to be called, walked into the Courtroom to see what was going on. The Judge saw him and just as suddenly appointed him to represent defendant William Stovall, while he informed me that I was still appointed to represent his wife, Marjorie Stovall. We both were very polite and respectful but both were unwilling to proceed and the Judge, as red-faced as ever, ordered us arrested for direct contempt. We were both handcuffed and taken to the holding cell behind the courtroom.

Once we arrived in jail, we were met by several of our clients who were truly glad to see us. Captive audience lawyers able to discuss their cases at length. After just a few minutes, Judge Gorman sent his clerk to the lockup to get Pete out of jail to start his trial in Judge Gorman’s room. Officer Dick Portner, a 38-year veteran with the CPD was in charge of the lockup. He told Judge Gorman’s clerk that he had no authority to do so and that he needed a Court order to release Pete. Gorman’s clerk reported back to the Judge that Portner would not allow him to get Pete out of jail and lo and behold, within five minutes, Judge Gorman, in his robes, walked into the lockup and told Portner that he was “taking charge” of prisoner Rosenwald and that if he was not released he would cite Portner for contempt. Needless to say, Portner let Pete go with the Judge, not willing to risk getting put in the cage with the 60 or so prisoners.

Pete served the entire remainder of his sentence representing a drug dealer in a trial in Judge Gorman’s Courtroom. The trial took two days and resulted in a hung jury. The City never retried the case so in defense speak “a victory.” Pete’s time behind bars, 10 minutes with six hours of “work release.” I never let him forget that I did 7 hours of “hard time” while he got an easier, or was it even worse, sentence with Judge Gorman as his parole officer (the Judge even let him go to lunch, while I skipped the baloney sandwich in lockup.)”

Larsen: all these years later, we may recall this story with humor, but my pride in the actions of these two young defenders so many years ago has never faded. They stood strong in the face of a judicial contempt order, unwilling to compromise the quality of representation justice required and the defendants deserved. Pete walked through life with an air of nonchalance which belied his commitment to excellence as a defense attorney. Now I read daily of Ray Faller’s Hamilton County Public Defenders representing their clients with the same determination to level the playing field and provide the excellent representation that justice requires. I know that throughout his career, Pete served as a model for those Defenders who stand beside their clients today.

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*Until a 1972 United States Supreme Court decision (Argersinger v. Hamlin, 407 U.S. 25 (1972), those charged with misdemeanors and unable to afford trial counsel stood unrepresented at the bar.



9 thoughts on “Contempt of Court

  1. Wonderful reminder of what good public defenders do!

    Timothy M. Burke
    Manley Burke, LPA
    225 West Court St.
    Cincinnati, OH 45202
    513 721-5525
    513 721-4268- Fax

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  2. What a wonderful tribute to Pete, and a reminder if the important work that was done and continues to be done.

  3. I share your respect for Pete Rosenwald, who was a fine lawyer and a very good guy.

    Sent from my iPhone

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  4. I am very sorry to hear of the death of this wonderful Attorney and dedicated professional. He was truly a role model for other practitioners.

    What a wonderful remembrance, dear Bea.
    Debra Rothstein

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