(11/13/07)Judges are among the most powerful men and women in our society, but that power is not unlimited. The power of the office doesn"t convey a right to mistreat, belittle or otherwise disrespect those who appear before the court. All should be equal in the eyes of the law. Former Judge James Michael Shull broke this cardinal rule. He disrespected and demeaned some who sought his aid and, in doing so, brought disgrace and shame upon his profession and paid a steep price – removal from office by the Virginia State Supreme Court. Shull "disrespected and demeaned" nobody. Instead, he made a tough call in a difficult situation in order to protect two young children. Shull had to effectively turn the kids over to either a father who was accused of stabbing their mother or a mother who was allegedly a mentally-disturbed, suicidal "cutter." Putting the children's safety over courtroom decorum, Shull made what was indisputably the correct call, finding that the mother had cut herself and had falsely accused the father. Shull, who presided in Juvenile and Domestic Relations courts in Lee, Scott and Wise counties, is just the fourth sitting judge to receive such punishment in Virginia. Two of the previous judicial defrocking took place a century ago. The third case involved a judge who misappropriated alcohol and firearms that were introduced as evidence in a court proceeding, then consumed the confiscated beer in his chambers. Sitting judges are almost never removed from office. Behavior must be truly egregious – or even criminal – for such to occur. Shull"s behavior wasn"t criminal, but it was grossly inappropriate, the state Supreme Court determined in a Nov. 2 ruling. The judge admitted flipping a coin to decide a child custody issue. What really happened was this--a mother and father had shared physical custody of their children, and could not agree as to who would have them on Christmas Day. Shull urged them to come to an agreement themselves, but they were unable to. Normally at this point (or actually, long before it) the judge would've just decided to give the kids to mom for Christmas, but Shull told both parents that he considered both of them to be good, loving parents and that he did not want to have to choose between them. When they were unable to decide, he decided to toss a coin to make the decision, sending a clear message that the court was not going to favor one parent over the other. I applaud Shull for this, yet, amazingly, this non-event is one of the major charges against him. Also, according to Shull, the coin toss was not objected to by either of the two parties, both of whom were represented by attorneys. Shull determined who got the 1st week of Xmas vacation the first year, with vacation to be alternated thereafter. He admitted making an ex parte phone call during an order of protection hearing, which is a violation of judicial rules. 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. In the most glaring example of misconduct, witnesses testified that Shull twice asked a woman "with a clear history of mental instability" to drop her pants in the courtroom to show him a wound on her leg. A court bailiff testified that Shull commented on the woman"s underwear, a lacy black thong, after the hearing. Other witnesses testified the woman"s bare buttocks were exposed. These facts are very much contested--there are three witnesses who say that the woman offered to lower her pants to show the wound. Also, 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. In his defense, Shull contended that he was trying to determine whether the woman had been stabbed by her husband, as she claimed, or had caused the injuries herself. This isn"t a compelling argument. Certainly, the judge could have asked for photographs of the injury or a doctor"s report. Instead, he chose to humiliate a vulnerable woman who was seeking the court"s protection. A woman who is trying to destroy a father's life and take his kids away by making a false accusation is "a vulnerable woman who was seeking the court"s protection"?! Also, there was no time for photographs or doctor"s reports--Shull had to adjudicate the case to protect the children then, or risk turning them over to someone who might harm them. In testimony at his suspension hearing, Shull acknowledged crossing a line of proper conduct. Shull testified that he "probably ... lost sensitivity to the overall situation" and "handled it poorly" and "indecorously" and "wrong," according to a written opinion of the Virginia State Supreme Court. If the incident had been the only blemish on Shull"s record, he might have been disciplined, but kept his career. It was not. Shull faced a disciplinary panel in 2004 over allegations that he made derogatory comments about a 14-year-old boy who appeared in his court and that he told a woman she should marry her abusive boyfriend to "put an end to the abuse." These two incidents are very much disputed, and the evidence behind these allegations against Shull was so weak that they were dismissed. In addition:
1) Shull disputes his alleged knowledge that the 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.In the earlier disciplinary proceeding, Shull escaped with a warning. He acknowledged his mistakes and promised to do better. At the time, he"d only been on the bench about a year. In retrospect, Shull appeared to have a clear pattern of disrespect for the litigants in his court. Even though he"d been warned to shape up, he continued to behave in a way that most judges would find abhorrent. He ran out of chances. The high court found that Shull was a threat to the public"s faith in the judicial system. "Unless our citizens can trust that judges will fairly resolve the disputes brought before our courts, and treat all litigants with dignity, our courts will lose the public"s respect," the justices agreed. Shull was given a second chance, but he could not or would not change his behavior. He did not deserve a third opportunity to mistreat those who seek justice. The system worked. No one is above the law – not even those who sit in judgment of others. What really happened was that Shull had the guts to stand up to a woman who was attempting to defraud the court by making false charges. Had Shull done what most judges would do, and turned the two young children over to their mentally disturbed, "cutter" mother, he would've never heard another word about the case. The "threat to the public"s faith in the judicial system" comes not from conscientious judges like Shull, but instead from people who make false accusations of domestic violence or child sexual abuse, and the misguided women's advocates who unwittingly serve as their enablers.