Ouster ousted: Court dismisses Peatross case

The Virginia Supreme Court on Friday dismissed a judicial board's attempt to remove an Albemarle County judge because of ethical questions regarding his handling of several criminal cases.

The court ruled that Circuit Judge Paul M. Peatross Jr. made mistakes in interpreting the law and engaged in unprofessional conduct. But his actions weren't "clear and convincing evidence of a violation of the canons that would warrant censure or removal from office,'' the opinion said.

The Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission had asked the Supreme Court to remove Peatross from the bench because of charges that he had engaged in improper and prejudicial conduct and displayed a pattern of "judicial absolutism.''

Part of the commission's case against Peatross stemmed from a complaint filed by Albemarle County Commonwealth's Attorney James Camblos. In December 2003, Camblos approached Peatross with a plea agreement he had negotiated with an assistant public defender in a robbery case. The agreement would have withdrawn a failure-to-appear charge against the defendant, but Peatross denied the deal and instead removed both attorneys from the case, saying that they had lied to him about the charge.

In an earlier case, Peatross improperly dismissed a felony charge without authority to do so, because he didn't agree with Camblos's move to have the charge reduced to a misdemeanor. In the third case, Peatross was "extremely impatient, undignified, and discourteous'' to a public defender, according to the commission's report.

The commission told Peatross in April that he should disqualify himself from hearing cases involving the prosecutor's and the public defender's offices, which effectively removed him from all criminal cases. In the meantime, substitute judges and other judges from the judicial circuit that includes Albemarle heard the county's criminal cases.

Another set of allegations against Peatross involved a conversation the judge had with state Supreme Court Chief Justice Leroy Hassell during which he discussed his case. The commission alleged that he misrepresented to Hassell that the matter was resolved and wouldn't be heard by the court.

In Friday's opinion, the Supreme Court said it came to its decision by conducting its own review of the evidence and allowing testimony and letters from those who supported and opposed Peatross.

The court said that the commission's function is only to determine whether the charges have any basis, and the burden lies with the commission to "prove by clear and convincing evidence the charges brought to this court.''

The ruling was extraordinary because the high court almost always reviews only a case's existing record and makes its ruling after written and oral arguments.

The judicial review commission is composed of three judges, two lawyers and two citizens who aren't lawyers. The panel's proceedings are secret except when it recommends the censure or removal of a judge. This has occurred only seven times in the past 31 years.

Jim Camblos complained about Peatross


So did Jim Hingeley