Virginia Supreme Court Should Reinstate Controversial Judge

By Michael McCormick and Glenn Sacks

The Virginia Supreme Court is currently considering removing a judge who should instead be honored. James Michael Shull, a local district judge who sits in Lee, Scott and Wise counties, has been suspended since December 20, 2006, and may be removed from office by the Supreme Court on November 2.

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.

Protection orders based on dubious domestic violence accusations are a serious problem, both in Virginia and the United States as a whole. Under a protection order, one spouse–usually the father–is booted out of the marital home and pushed to the margins of his or her children’s lives. The orders are often used as custody maneuvers, or as punitive measures by angry intimate partners.

Some judges simply rubber stamp protection order requests. Others may doubt the veracity of the charges but nevertheless decide to “err on the side of caution” by granting them. Shull, to his credit, carefully examined the evidence in the G. case.

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.

Tammy’s credibility is further impugned by the fact that the Virginia Board of Nursing suspended her nursing license indefinitely in 2005 after Tammy admitted stealing numerous controlled substances from the hospital where she worked for “her personal and unauthorized use.” These included syringes of Morphine, Demerol, and Dilaudid, as well as OxyContin and other drugs.

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.” He remains under suspension.

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.

The JIRC Commission also asserts that Shull violated judicial ethics by making an allegedly ex parte call from his chambers to the hospital to verify that G. had indeed been treated there. Yet such calls are not that unusual, and Shull made the call as part of his duty to protect the G. children.

Shull’s conscientious pursuit of the truth in the G. case, for which he faces removal, was admirable. We urge the Virginia Supreme Court to dismiss these charges and reinstate him.

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