Richmond Times-Dispatch


Was commission biased against judge?
Virginia high court is asked to review disciplinary case involving Albemarle jurist
BY ALAN COOPER
TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER
Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Judge Paul M. Peatross Jr. of Albemarle County Circuit Court should be removed from office because of his vindictiveness and extremely serious questions about his truthfulness, the state's Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission has recommended.

But did the commission prejudge Peatross and was it so biased against him that the Virginia Supreme Court should hear evidence about the allegations of his misconduct? The state high court must weigh those differing views of the proceedings against Peatross by the agency set up to investigate allegations of unethical conduct by state judges.

The starkly contrasting positions were set out in briefs filed recently with the high court, which has the final say on questions of ethical impropriety by judges. The work of the commission is secret unless the panel recommends the censure or removal of a judge, which has occurred only seven times in the last 31 years.

The case against Peatross began a year ago when Albemarle Commonwealth's Attorney James L. Camblos III went to Peatross' office with a plea agreement that he had negotiated with an assistant public defender in a robbery case.

The judge and the prosecutor had differing recollections of what precisely transpired in the meeting, but Peatross ultimately concluded at a subsequent hearing that Camblos and the defense attorney had lied to him.

Peatross removed the attorneys from the case and put that conclusion in an order without giving the lawyers an opportunity to enter a formal objection to it. Camblos believed he had no alternative but to report Peatross to the commission, and himself and the defense attorney to the Virginia State Bar, which investigates allegations of ethical violations by lawyers.

The commission told Peatross in April that he should disqualify himself from hearing cases involving Camblos' office and the public defender's office, which effectively removed him from all criminal cases in the county.

The commission ultimately decided that Camblos' recollection was accurate, but the commission's findings on Peatross' conduct on the bench went far beyond its investigation of that one incident.

"We find that [Peatross] acted vindictively towards attorneys where he felt that his authority was questioned," said Larry D. Willis Sr., a judge of Chesapeake Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court and a member of the review commission.

"We find that he engaged in what we are terming judicial absolutism, that is he was the final authority on everything, and it was his way or no way," Willis continued. "That judicial absolutism is inconsistent with the standards expected of judges presiding in Virginia courts."

In their brief, Peatross' attorneys, James C. Roberts, Russell V. Palmore and Brian D. Otero of Troutman Sanders, contended that the extension of the charges beyond the original incident showed the commission's bias against the judge.

As an example, the commission faulted him for discussing plea agreements before they were presented in court and then asserting in open court that no judge had participated in the agreements, his attorneys said. If he had been notified of that allegation before the hearing he could have presented evidence that the practice was not a policy of his and that other judges conducted similar informal review of such agreements.

Peatross also could have rebutted criticism that he did not handle misdemeanor cases by citing state law that allows circuit judges to certify those cases to a lower court, the attorneys said.

"The irregularities in the JIRC proceedings raise substantial questions about whether Judge Peatross was afforded a fair hearing before an impartial tribunal," the attorneys wrote.

"They also illustrate the need for this court to act as a check on the regulatory process of the JIRC by conducting an evidentiary hearing and making independent factual findings" rather than accepting the findings of the commission.

"Accordingly, Judge Peatross respectfully requests that this court conduct an evidentiary hearing, or at a minimum, permit the presentation of additional evidence relating to the JIRC's charges against Judge Peatross," the attorneys argued.

That is an extraordinary request, because the high court almost without exception reviews only the existing record and decides the case after written and oral arguments.

Commission counsel Donald R. Curry was even more forceful in urging the court to remove Peatross.

"First and foremost, the record in this case raises extremely serious questions about the judge's truthfulness," Curry said. "The judge should have known that his representations that he had not participated in any discussion leading to a plea agreement was untrue. There is every reason to believe that the judge's misrepresentations on the record [in the robbery case] was equally habitual."

Peatross' "fitness for office also is called into question by his demonstrated pattern of vindictiveness," especially in removing the lawyers and finding that they had lied to him in the robbery case, Curry said.

"The judge sought no justification for his conduct by citation to any legal authority, afforded neither attorney any semblance of due process, buried the actions in orders not endorsed by or provided to the attorneys directly affected by them, [and] effectively prevented any opportunity for the attorneys to seek judicial review of his conduct," Curry said.

He also criticized Peatross for talking to Chief Justice Leroy R. Hassell Sr. about the proceedings against him, which became the basis for another allegation of ethical impropriety.

Peatross has said he talked to Hassell because he thought it necessary to tell him that he probably should no longer serve on the Judicial Council, the policy-making body for the judiciary.

He acknowledged telling Hassell some of the facts of the case but said he did so because at the time he intended to accept stringent conditions set by the commission at least until he turns 60 next year, when he could retire with the full benefits he has earned in his 18 years as a judge.

When he changed his mind and decided to contest the charges before the Supreme Court, judicial ethics required Hassell to disqualify himself from hearing the case.

"Having been told, in effect, that whether the commission filed a formal complaint against him was entirely up to him, the judge initiated a prohibited unethical communication with the Chief Justice and did so after assuring the Chief Justice that his case would not be coming before the court," Curry wrote.

"Then after hearing what he considered to be a favorable comment by the Chief Justice, the judge made a deliberate decision that he knew would result in this case being brought to this court by the commission," Curry said.

No date has been set for the hearing before the Supreme Court, but the briefing schedule suggests it will occur in early March or late April with a decision seven weeks later.

In the meantime, substitute judges and other judges from the judicial circuit that includes Albemarle are hearing all criminal cases from the county.


Contact Alan Cooper at (804) 649-6649 or acooper@timesdispatch.com


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