Recuse yourself! Public Defender asks Peatross to go
A little over a month after Judge Paul "Mac" Peatross resumed hearing criminal cases after being cleared of wrongdoing by the Virginia Supreme Court, another hurdle has been thrown up by one of his detractors.
In a May 27 "motion for disqualification," Jim Hingeley, the Charlottesville Albemarle Public Defender, has asked that Peatross recuse himself from all cases involving the Defender's office for up to two years.
If granted, some court-watchers say, such a recusal could essentially do what a state body could not: remove Peatross from the bench.
The controversy arose about a year ago when Hingeley and Albemarle Commonwealth's Attorney James Camblos charged that Peatross, an Albemarle County Circuit Court judge, had engaged in improper conduct, including getting so angry with an attorney that he retaliated against a defendant with a harsher-than-expected sentence.
In September, the Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission, a seven-member state board, unanimously agreed "by clear and convincing evidence" that Peatross should be censured or removed from the bench.
But the Supreme Court didn't agree. On April 22, it dismissed any notion of censure, and Peatross– who had recused himself during the investigation– resumed hearing Circuit Court cases full time.
Hingeley declines comment on the motion, which he calls an "ongoing case," but local attorney Steven Rosenfield says Hingeley's request is "extremely rare." In this case, however, Rosenfield believes "there are grounds." Rosenfield is one of five private attorneys whose criticisms of Peatross sometimes called "Maximum Mac" for his allegedly tough sentences– were part of the original complaints in the state.
"In sentencing, Judge Peatross appears to be unwilling or unable to recognize extenuating circumstances, including mental limitations, youth, and/or other mitigating circumstances," wrote attorney Fran Lawrence in another such letter.
Attorney Fred Payne wrote, "On a number of occasions I have observed Judge Peatross treat persons appearing before him in a manner which I can only characterize as rude."
And Rosenfield wrote that many of his colleagues complain of the "embarrassment caused to them by [Peatross'] ridicule or tone."
Payne, Lawrence and Rosenfield point out that their letters were not reprinted in the motion in full. Peatross, Payne insists, has always been "professional and courteous" when Payne has argued cases before him.
Rosenfield also praised Peatross for "being fair to all parties" and "rendering good judgment on evidentiary matters." Lawrence, likewise, says he hasn't personally had a bad experience in Peatross' courtroom.
But while Rosenfield says, it's "uncomfortable for those of us who submitted letters criticizing Judge Peatross to appear before him," Payne insists that's not the case.
"I'm not concerned that this or any judge would hold comments against me," says Payne. "I have no personal animus toward him."
Lawrence says he isn't personally concerned about his letter's effect, but he– like Payne and Rosenfield– does now disclose his involvement in the Peatross investigation to his clients and allows them to decide whether to ask the judge to recuse himself. Lawrence says he has filed a recusal request on behalf of one client.
Peatross did not return the Hook's call, and it's impossible to know how he'll rule when the hearing takes place at 2pm on June 23. Camblos also declined comment on whether his office might consider a similar motion if Hingeley's is granted.
But while it may seem unlikely that the judge would recuse himself from what amounts to hundreds of cases each year, Rosenfield says it could happen.
"I think it ought to be granted," he says of Hingeley's request. "But judges are people, and they have pride. It remains to be seen if the judge thinks he'd like to avoid the appearance of bias, which should result in his granting the motion."
Public Defender Jim Hingeley.
FILE PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO