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.
To learn more about the case, see my blog posts In Defense of Judge James Michael Shull (Part I) and In Defense of Judge James Michael Shull (Part II), or read my co-authored newspaper column defending Shull here.
The Virginia Supreme Court’s opinion criticizes Shull for “making an improper ex parte telephone call during a recess in the custody hearing to obtain information on a disputed factual matter” and that this “ex parte communication serves to illustrate again Judge Shull”s lack of concern for litigants appearing before him.”
Nothing could be further from the truth–Shull made the phone call out of concern for the litigants before him, principally the two young children whose placement he had to decide. Shull had to give the children either to the husband, who the wife claimed stabbed her, or the wife, who the husband claimed was a mentally-disturbed cutter.
In the case, Tammy G. claimed that her husband had stabbed her and that she went to a local emergency room for treatment. Shull’s violation consisted of–brace yourself–calling the local hospital to confirm that Tammy G. had been admitted. Once again, Shull is in trouble for examining the facts in the case before him–he made the call as part of his duty to protect the G. children.
Shull also says that he informed everyone in the courtroom that he planned to call before he made the call.
It is true that the Virginia Canons of Judicial Conduct states:
“A judge shall not initiate, permit, or consider ex parte communications, or consider other communications made to the judge outside the presence of the parties concerning a pending or impending proceeding.”
Shull says, “It is not uncommon for judges in the juvenile and domestic relations court to place telephone calls to ascertain the truth when resolving a factual dispute.”
The Virginia Lawyers Weekly article JIRC: Censure or remove J&DR judge (5/28/07) contains an interesting tidbit about this issue. The lead judge in the court where Shull heard this case, Elizabeth S. Wills, “testified that she very seldom makes such calls.”
“Seldom?” So Wills, who is Shull’s boss and who is largely responsible for him being railroaded, admits to the Judicial Commission that she too has made the same kind of phone calls–the type of calls which Shull is in trouble for doing once and only once.