Judge's wife: Should relationship be revealed?
It's no secret in local legal circles that Judge William Barkley is married to high-profile defense attorney Rhonda Quagliana.
Those who aren't lawyers might remember that Quagliana represented the apologetic rapist, William Beebe, arrested more than 20 years later when he begged his victim for forgiveness as part of a 12-step program. They might remember that she represented porn pastor Gregory Briehl, or wife-murderer Anthony Dale Crawford, or that she and her partner currently represent the accused killer of Yeardley Love, George Huguely.
But her marriage to Judge Barkley, that's a detail not so widely known.
Jessamy Rouson thinks it should be, particularly when Judge Barkley hears a case represented by his wife's firm, St. John, Bowling, Lawrence and Quagliana.
Rouson appeared before Judge Barkley in Albemarle General District Court October 15 as the plaintiff in a civil suit. Her adversary was represented by Fran Lawrence, Quagliana's partner.
According to Rouson, the judge told her that a family member worked for Lawrence's firm and offered to recuse himself. She signed a waiver that she claims she didn't read, Barkley heard the case, and then ruled against her.
Afterward, Rouson learned Barkley is married to Quagliana.
"He says a 'family member'," says Rouson. "That could be a nephew in a menial position. That's a lot different from saying, 'My wife is a partner with Fran Lawrence'."
Outraged, Rouson filed a complaint with the Virginia Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission.
"This is clearly a glaring conflict of interest–- particularly as a portion of the income from St. John, Bowling, Lawrence and Quagliana is a part of Judge Barkley’s personal household income," she wrote.
The response from the commission, which monitors judges in Virginia, was that she could have asked about the relationship before signing the waiver, says Rouson.
"I'm just the public," she says. "I'm not going to get up there and start questioning the judge, and I don't know that anyone would."
The Judicial Review and Inquiry Commission did not return repeated phone calls from the Hook.
While jurists do not hear cases represented by their spouses, a judge is not disqualified from hearing a case from his spouse's firm, according to Jim McCauley, ethics counsel for the Virginia State Bar. "The judge is required to disclose, and all parties must consent, or the judge must recuse," says McCauley.
That can pose its own problems in districts where there are vacancies on the bench and the case has to be continued. "Do you want the matter heard with bias, or do you want to further delay?" asks McCauley, who sees the dilemma Rouson's now facing.
"You can't raise the issue after the fact," he says. "If the judge disclosed at the outset of the case and she didn't act on it, and now she's coming back with sour grapes because the case didn't turn out the way she liked–- she could have said she needed more time to think."
However, McCauley also agrees that revealing the connection only as a "family member" doesn't sufficiently allow the parties to make an informed decision.
"The degree of the relationship should be disclosed," he says. "There's a big difference in what constitutes a family member, between a wife who's a partner and a second cousin who clerks."
Adds McCauley, "It matters."
Judge Barkley did not return phone calls from the Hook. Nor did Quagliana and Lawrence.
St. John, Bowling has another relationship with a judge in town: Albemarle Circuit Court Judge Cheryl Higgins is a former partner in the firm.
Last year, Higgins had defendant Patrick Crider play the violin to determine if he had a relationship with one of her children, and she stepped away from the case when she realized he did.
But she declines to discuss how she handles cases from her former firm. "Judge Higgins does not speak to the press," says her assistant.
"I've always seen great judgment by our judges," says attorney Steve Rosenfield, who has heard judges disclose relationships with witnesses and offer to step away if anyone has a concern.
As for disclosing family members, "It seems like greater candor to identify a spouse," Rosenfield says, but he also believes anyone like Rouson should take more responsibility. "It would have been fair for [her] to ask what is the role in the firm," he says.
Judge Steve Helvin is retired from the Albemarle General District bench where Barkley now sits. And while he notes that "You want to avoid not just impropriety, but the appearance of impropriety," he says his good friends Barkley and Quagliana have done that.
"They're very scrupulous," says Helvin. "I've never heard any complaints at all."
Helvin acknowledges that marrying the person one loves can create awkward professional situations, but not necessarily unethical ones. Helvin also notes that when a lawyer becomes a judge, she avoids hearing cases from her old firm for a period of time, such as six to 12 months, because she may have been involved with such cases.
For example, in her first term, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan has recused herself from about half the cases the Court has taken because she was familiar with them from when she was solicitor general.
Helvin, unlike his peers who shy away from speaking to the press on the issue of judicial conflicts, says, "It's a question that should be asked."
Rouson is not convinced by testimonies to Judge Barkley's fairness.
"I don't think Judge Barkley should be kicked off the bench, and I think he's probably a very nice man," she says. "I just don't think he should hear cases from his wife's law firm."