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Divorce case cloaked: Case touches two political campaigns

Editor’s Note: The story has been updated to include a response from Judge Marlene Gonzalez to ABC-7’s inquiry regarding redaction vs. sealing of records.

EL PASO, Texas (KVIA) -- The divorce case of current City Representative and mayoral candidate Cassandra Hernandez may be closed, but it raised questions of transparency and resulted in her endorsement of the judge’s challenger.

In less than a month, the case filed by Hernandez’s husband, Jeremy Jordan, went from being public, to disappearing completely from the public court system, with questions being bounced through at least three departments at the courthouse, to being public again, and finally, withdrawn.   

Presiding judge Marlene Gonzalez, who is running for re-election in the 388th District Court race, told ABC-7 in a statement, “the case drew an exorbitant amount of public interest and inquiry, so the record was unsealed.”   

That move led to Hernandez’s rebuke of Judge Gonzalez as someone who “has demonstrated to my family that her politics are more important than the privacy of her constituents,” according to a post on Hernandez’s mayoral campaign Facebook page.   

ABC-7 has reached out repeatedly to Hernandez for comment, but so far, we have not heard back.    

What happened   

ABC-7 received a tip on February 7 that City Representative Cassandra Hernandez’s husband, Jeremy Jordan, filed for divorce on January 19, and the case that was once visible to the public as displayed on a screenshot taken days before, had disappeared from the court’s online records system.    

Following the tip, ABC-7 confirmed the case was not available through the online records search, and it was unclear why the public could no longer access the docket information.    

Most Texas counties, including El Paso, have web-based platforms that allow the public to search for court cases online.    

ABC-7 learned the records –not just documents but the entire docket-- were put under seal, meaning they were no longer available to the public, by Judge Marlene Gonzalez of the 388th Judicial District.      

On February 8, ABC-7 reached out to Judge Gonzalez’s office asking for the sealing request, along with the sealing order, which should be available to the public for inspection, according to Joe Larsen, a Houston-based attorney and board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.    

388th Judicial District Court coordinator Al Alderete referred ABC-7's request to the District Clerks’ office as they “receive all records requests,” he wrote in an email.    

After several exchanges, the District Clerk’s office passed ABC-7’s request for information to the County Attorney’s office, their legal counsel, on February 13.     

The next day, the divorce case involving City Representative Cassandra Hernandez was available to the public on El Paso’s court portal.   

The docket showed that while the case had been filed on January 19, and Rep. Hernandez officially entered the mayoral race on January 31st by filing for a campaign treasurer, it wasn’t until a day later that Jeremy Jordan filed the motion to seal the court records and remove everyone’s full names from the case to display only their initials.

In a statement to ABC-7, Judge Gonzalez added more detail, explaining Jordan’s attorney “inadvertently included the full name of their minor child. Divorce petitions are generally ‘open record’ documents. Therefore, the practice for decades in El Paso County has been to file petitions identifying minor children by initials only.”  

First Amendment Attorney Joe Larsen pointed out there are other ways to protect a child’s identity.  

“It’s not an easy question to answer except Yes, you can redact the names of children, and No, that’s not a basis for sealing the entire docket,” Larsen told ABC-7.    

“Unfortunately, there is no provision granting me authorization as a judge to redact documents that have already been filed,” Judge Gonzalez told ABC-7 in a statement. “Texas Rules of Civil Procedure 21c provides for the redaction of qualified information from documents but that is the duty of the filer to redact all sensitive information prior to filing the documents.”

Both Jordan’s request and Judge Gonzalez’s order include language suggesting a legal threshold for sealing records, asserting “The general public health or safety will not be adversely affected by sealing the court’s record in this suit.”  

Court records also show, on January 24, Judge Gonzalez referred the case to Associate Judge James Lucas, however, records show she took back the case on February 2 at 11:45 a.m. and granted the order to seal the records at 11:46 a.m. that same day.    

The order stated, in part, “that all the court's records, with the exception of any court orders, opinions, or other records that may not be sealed under law” shall be sealed.   

In addition to that, Gonzalez issued another order on February 13 just before 2 p.m. sealing all “records and orders” in the case, according to court records obtained by ABC-7.    

But just less than 24 hours later, Judge Gonzalez filed the order to unseal the case at 3:33 p.m., court records show.

On the morning of February 15, Jeremy Jordan dismissed his divorce case without prejudice, meaning, it can always be refiled, court records show.   

Hernandez took to her mayoral campaign page on Facebook that morning, posting, “Want to make sure your judges are not influenced by external influences? I am proud to endorse @vote_for_joy Joy Kelly Degenhart For district judge in the 388th District court. @judgemarlenegonzalez Has demonstrated to my family that her politics are more important than the privacy of her constituents. Dm me for details.” Hernadez tagged her husband, Jordan, in the post.    

Degenhart is running against Judge Gonzalez in the March 5 Democratic Primary Election.    

ABC-7 reached out to Hernandez and Gonzalez about the post on Facebook. So far, we have not heard back.   

In a statement to ABC-7, Judge Gonzalez did address why she said she sealed the case.  

“Upon realizing that the child's entire name was included in the case in question, the law office, after obtaining an agreement to seal the record signed by both interested parties, requested that the court, seal the record,” Judge Gonzalez wrote in the prepared statement. She added the Family Code did not require any notices or hearings prior to sealing the records. 

As for her reversal, she wrote, “The case drew an exorbitant amount of public interest and inquiry, so the record was unsealed,” but didn’t explain further.  

Attorney Joe Larsen confirmed in family court cases, such as this one, a judge does have discretion to seal files, which he said is a bit different than most civil cases. Larsen said the orders or opinions, however, may not be sealed.   

“Now that’s highly irregular, you know? There are in fact a lot of reports all around the country of ‘secret dockets,’ they’re called, where nobody even knows the case exists and for a few minutes or an hour or two, I don’t know how long the situation was there in El Paso, you had a secret docket,” Larsen said. “If somebody were to try and find that case, you couldn’t do it and that allows all kinds of abuse when you’ve got a court system that nobody even knows the cases are there and so that’s received a lot of criticism and usually when they are discovered, they end.”     

When ABC-7 asked why not even the motion to seal and the order were made available, Chief Deputy Sylvia Duarte at the El Paso County District Clerk’s Office said, “When an order to seal is filed in any case, we change the security field to ‘secure’ and is therefore, no longer available to the public.  The case does not disappear it is just not available to view in the public portal,” Duarte explained in an email response to ABC-7.     

Rebuilding trust   

In a recent interview with El Paso Matters, City Representative Cassandra Hernandez said she intends to regain the community’s trust as she campaigns for mayor.   

Hernandez was recently named in a lawsuit filed by El Paso Chief Internal Auditor Edmundo Calderon where he claimed the city, and some of its former and current staff members harassed and intimidated him following the gasoline card audit done by his office.      

The audit, along with video obtained by ABC-7 showing Hernandez’s husband filling up his truck, were used by the city’s Ethics Commission to reprimand the city representative for misuse of the card.  

Hernandez paid back the $6,700 in gas expenditures the audit deemed “excessive,” and maintained she used the gas to transport her –and sometimes her family—to multiple city functions.  

Before the commission, she also argued the number of hours she dedicates to her work as city representative more than make up for the gasoline overage. 

While Commission Chairman Casey Williams commended her for dedicating countless hours to public service, he said that didn’t justify the misuse of the gas card.    

Hernandez maintains she’s the best choice to lead the city.  

“I just have to be honest and genuine about my intentions,” she told El Paso Matters. “I know I have to rebuild that trust with the voters and I will. I’m going to earn it.”   


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