In Defense of Judge James Michael Shull (Part I)

Background: Conscientious Virginia judge James Michael Shull, who smoked out a woman who sought to extend a restraining order based on false charges of domestic violence, was just removed from the bench by this Virginia Supreme Court ruling. I have examined the evidence in this case and it is clear to me that Shull is being railroaded. The case provides a sad but excellent example of what can happen to judges who take their responsibilities seriously when adjudicating domestic violence claims.

Shull”s problems stem from a case which came before him on December 15, 2006. In that case, Tammy G. had obtained a domestic violence protection order against her husband Keith G., claiming that he had stabbed her. At the time of the G. hearing, the couple”s two young children, then ages three and five, were staying with their paternal grandmother. Keith testified that he hadn”t harmed Tammy, and that if she did have a wound, she had cut herself. Keith also testified that Tammy had committed a similar act on March 22, 2006, harming herself and then calling the police to report that Keith had attacked her.

Shull reasoned that he had to find the truth in order to protect the children from either a father who had stabbed their mother, or a mother who is a psychologically disturbed cutter. Shull examined the wounds and found that they were four nearly identical razor blade-like slices in two sets of parallel lines spaced evenly apart–hardly the type of wounds one would receive in domestic combat, and entirely consistent with Keith”s allegations that Tammy had cut herself. Shull also examined the Wise County Sheriff”s Incident Report about Tammy G.”s March allegations. According to the report, Tammy “gave a statement that she had done this to herself to get attention,’ and “admitted that she had self-inflicted her wounds.’ The report discusses charging Tammy with filing a false police report over the incident.Shull got in trouble because, according to the Virginia Lawyers” Weekly, Tammy and Teresa Castle, the deputy clerk, claim that, in order to inspect the wound, he directed Tammy to expose herself twice during the hearing. The Virginia Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission “summarily suspended’ Shull for “a substantial and serious breach of the dignity and decorum required in a Virginia courtroom.’Shull and Daniel Fast, Keith G.”s attorney, assert that Tammy had offered to lower her pants both times in order to show Shull the wounds. According to the VLW, neither side disputes that “the privacy curtains in the courtroom were pulled before G. exposed herself.’Tammy”s wound was on her right thigh, she was wearing pants, and the only way Shull could examine the wounds was to have her lower them. Perhaps Shull should have acted more cautiously. However, his need to protect the G. children by ruling correctly in this difficult, contentious case vastly outweighs Tammy”s privacy concerns. Most importantly, no party in the dispute is even claiming that Shull made the wrong decision in finding that the wounds in question were self-inflicted. Shull”s conscientious pursuit of the truth in the G. case, for which he has been removed, was admirable.To read my co-authored newspaper column defending Shull, click here.

The Shull case and the recent Virginia Supreme Court decision are an infuriating example of how lightly our legal system takes false accusations against men. In this case, everyone agrees that Judge Shull was placed in a very difficult situation, and that he had to make a tough call where children could have been in imminent danger. Nobody even disputes that he got it right–and yet it doesn’t even matter.

Both the Virginia Supreme Court’s 29-page opinion and the widely-disseminated Associated Press article by Larry O’Dell ignore the most important facts in this case and are biased against Shull to a bizarre extent. In this series, I will discuss the claims against Shull. O’Dell writes:

“The court said [the most ‘egregious’ incident] occurred when a woman was seeking a protective order against a partner who she said had stabbed her in the leg. Shull knew the woman had a history of mental problems and insisted on seeing the wound, the court said.”

It is unclear that Shull was in a position to decide with finality that the woman, Tammy G., had “mental problems.” More importantly, even if he was, what did the Court expect Shull to do? Shull had three options:

1) Decide that since the woman is mentally ill, he’s not going to subject her to a full effort to find out whether or not her husband really did stab her, but instead just give the husband the children. In other words, don’t ascertain the truth, but instead turn the kids over to a man who she claims tried to kill her.

2) Decide that since the woman is mentally ill, he won’t put her through a full effort to ascertain the truth, but instead give her possession of the kids. In other words, give the kids to a mentally ill woman.

3) Ignore her apparent “mental problems,” and make a real effort to ascertain the truth in the case in order to protect the children. Shull did that, and it cost him his job, his reputation, and his retirement pension.

In the AP article, Larry O’Dell writes that several years ago Shull had “advised a woman to marry her abusive boyfriend” and that he got in trouble with the JIRC because of it. I have not investigated this charge separately, but Shull very much disputes this account:

1) Shull disputes his alleged knowledge that relationship was “abusive.”

2) Shull claims that his advice to get married occurred in a case where a woman’s ex-husband had custody of their children and the woman wanted to know what she could do to improve her chances to get the kids back. Shull told her that social services would look more favorably on her situation if she were living in a more stable relationship, like being married as opposed to just living with someone. He didn’t tell her she had to get married to get her kids back, he just told her it would strengthen her case.

3) Shull says that when JIRC investigated this accusation and others in 2004, his opponents’ versions unraveled. He says, “These cases were dismissed not because of mercy toward a rookie judge, but because they imploded.”

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