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Prosecutor who ‘double booked’ is held in contempt

A Norfolk general district judge has fined a prosecutor $250 for making lawyers, police officers and defendants wait while she handled a matter in circuit court.

The prosecutor, assistant commonwealth’s attorney Catherine M. Paxson, has filed an appeal of the criminal contempt conviction imposed Jan. 7 by Judge S. Clark Daugherty.

Paxson told the judge she “double-booked” that day by scheduling matters in circuit court at the same time she had preliminary hearings scheduled in the district court, according to the judge’s findings posted by The Virginian-Pilot.

Paxson had left word with the district clerk that she had a matter to attend to in circuit court. In her absence, the judge handled matters that did not require her presence, Daugherty said.

By 10 a.m., however, six defendants were waiting for preliminary hearings along with defense attorneys, police officers and about 15 other people, the judge said.

Paxson arrived at 10:20, and explained her delay.

Paxson apologized, according to the judge, who also said Paxson had never previously inconvenienced the court. After the delay, Paxson handled the six preliminary hearings “in her usual highly professional manner,” Daugherty wrote in his certificate of conviction.

With her appeal now filed in circuit court, Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney Earle C. Mobley has been appointed as special prosecutor, the paper said. A hearing is set for Feb. 19, according to online court records.

In a 2009 opinion, the Supreme Court of Virginia reversed criminal contempt convictions for two attorneys who excused clients from scheduled trials without court approval based on agreements for continuances. The high court said the evidence failed to establish the lawyers had intended to obstruct or interrupt the administration of justice.

One comment

  1. This post describes something that happens almost every day in courts across the Commonwealth. Whether if it is for prosecutors or defense attorneys, it is commonplace to have multiple cases in multiple levels of court. Sometimes defense attorneys will even have multiple cases at the same time in differing jurisdictions! There are some multiple reasons for this, but the biggest reason for this is the issue of funding/staffing. Most courts have set times for certain types of hearings and oftentimes these times will overlap with other courts within their jurisdiction or neighboring jurisdictions. This is often done for judicial economy and to save time/effort with court personnel such as clerks and deputies. Many clerk’s office are understaffed and open limited hours due to budgetary issues. The flip side of this is that this then requires coverage from prosecutors and court-appointed defenders (whether public defender or private attorneys) at these specific times which overlaps among courts and there are not enough attorneys to cover every hearing at the scheduled time since both Commonwealth’s Attorney and Public Defender office suffer from limitations related to staffing and budgets and there are not enough court appointed attorneys due to the low compensation received from the state.

    I understand the frustrations that probably motivated this judge to fine the ACA in contempt – any delay grinds the docket to a halt and will ripple throughout the entire day. And yes, waiting on one individual makes an easy target for these frustrations. However, from experience, I would be willing to bet that the ACA had no choice to schedule these matters contemporaneously given the limitations of both court’s docket and navigating the schedules of defense counsel (to avoid defense counsel from being double booked). When I was an ACA, this happened a fair amount and normally the courts would be very accommodating if notified. My ideal solution to this problem would be for the state to increase funding so both prosecutor offices and public defender offices can be staffed appropriately for the dockets they’re expected to cover. The courts could help matters by spreading out and staggering their schedules to avoid as best as possible situations where it is likely that attorneys will have to cover multiple hearings in multiple courts. I don’t believe Ms. Paxson’s actions rise to the level of contempt based on the facts as laid out in this article – otherwise courts across the Commonwealth would be full of prosecutors and defense attorneys being found in contempt for double booking.

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