MODESTO — A discussion over the scheduling of a murder trial escalated into a shouting match Tuesday in a Stanislaus County courtroom as a judge fined a defense attorney $200 after the two yelled at each other for more than 20 minutes.
Frank Carson called Superior Court Judge Linda McFadden's actions unprofessional and said in court that he will seek to remove her from the murder case.
"I'm not going to tolerate the disrespect that this court has shown to me," Carson told the judge.
McFadden told Carson that it was he who was acting unprofessionally.
"Mr. Carson, do not play games with this court," the judge shouted.
Court officials and attorneys with extensive experience in the courthouse said it's been a long time since a judge and an attorney have been involved in such an angry exchange.
Mike Tozzi, who has worked there since 1974, said only once before in the past 10 years has a judge and an attorney yelled at each other in court. Usually, the judge warns the attorney, who then complies.
"It's extremely rare that it would get to that level," said Tozzi, the court's former executive officer who is helping transition to a new leader.
He said it's just as rare to see a judge fine an attorney for being in contempt, but it has happened a few times. It happens more often in civil court, Tozzi said, and the court has sometimes sent letters to warn attorneys about their behavior to avoid a contempt fine.
Tuesday's hearing was supposed to determine whether a trial will start April 23 for Nicholas John Harris, who is accused of a 2008 murder in Turlock.
Carson told the judge that he is scheduled to start a murder trial April 15 in another courtroom, and that start date is "set in stone." He was speaking of the case of Michael Joseph Hoyt, who is accused of second-degree murder in a suspected road rage incident in 2010.
Carson said he was anxious to start the Harris trial, but it's difficult to know which trial has a priority and which has to be delayed.
"The judges all seem to think that they have a priority," Carson told McFadden.
The defense attorney has a third trial that's to start May 6 before a third judge. Carson told McFadden that judges in this county have a tendency to "kowtow" to the district attorney's office while scheduling trials.
He argued that prosecutors lecture to the court about demands from the alleged victim's family to move the case forward, as in the Hoyt case.
Later, McFadden told Carson that his comment about the county's judges was "disparaging."
Carson responded by saying: "I would never disparage the courts of this county on the record. And I did not."
In what sounded like a frustrated tone, Carson told the judge to go ahead and confirm the April 23 trial date for Harris.
McFadden told Carson to be ready or he will be sanctioned. The defense attorney stood up and appeared to turn his back.
McFadden later told Carson that he appeared to be walking out, and turning his back at that moment was disrespectful. She told the defense attorney to sit down, but he didn't.
The judge pointed her finger at Carson and shouted at him, telling him to sit down.
Carson remained standing and shouted "Do not shout at me. Do not point your finger at me!"
McFadden said, "And you will stop shouting at me!"
The court reporter stopped them, saying they had to speak one at a time or else she could not make an accurate record.
A few people in the courtroom audience gasped as the two shouted at each other. Three bailiffs and several attorneys watched in apparent disbelief.
McFadden told Carson that she yelled because she was trying to make herself heard over his shouting.
"The record should reflect that you keep interrupting me, your honor," Carson said.
The judge stopped the argument, saying it was noon. The hearing resumed at 1:30 p.m., only this time, the voices in the courtroom were much calmer.
McFadden ordered a transcript of the Hoyt case, because she wants to know how these trials were scheduled so close to each other.
Carson said he already has spoken about this issue with Presiding Judge Loretta Begen. "I'm OK if I know what court has a priority over the other courts."
McFadden told Carson she fined him for contempt because he was being disrespectful.
"I told you not to interrupt this court, and you continued," McFadden told Carson.
The judge said Harris' trial date will remain April 23, but she scheduled another pretrial hearing April 18. If Carson is not available, the judge might be forced to delay Harris' trial.
The defense attorney wants a transcript of what was said in court Tuesday, and the judge invited him to order a copy from the court reporter and pay for it himself.
Later, Carson said he will fight to have the contempt-of-court order overturned.
"It's stupid, and I'm going to appeal it," Carson said after Tuesday's hearing.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2394.