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Home / Viewpoint / Op-Ed: It’s time to get ‘wayward judges’ off courtroom benches

Op-Ed: It’s time to get ‘wayward judges’ off courtroom benches

Last year, here in courtroom 1A of the Fairfax County General District Court a woman stood before retired Judge Richard T. Horan and explained that she couldn’t afford a lawyer because she had lost her job during the early months of the pandemic. She asked the judge for a court-appointed lawyer. Judge Horan found the woman’s difficulty in finding a new job dubious and was unsympathetic in his response: “I am so sick and tired of people like you always requesting an attorney.” Judge Horan continued to vent his frustration with the woman by saying that he believed there was no reason she could not find a job, noting, “I see ‘Help Wanted’ signs everywhere.” Judge Horan then denied the woman her constitutional right to a court-appointed attorney and gave her a two-month extension to find a job, asserting that she would also have to find and afford a lawyer at the same time.

Standing in the courtroom, I watched stunned. Unfortunately, in my almost two decades as a criminal attorney, this wasn’t the first time that I had seen this kind of disrespect and miscarriage of justice. I immediately pounded out an email to Chief Judge Lisa Mayne, who oversees judges in the General District Court. Later, I reached out to the woman and represented her pro bono. I learned she was a single mother of two and domestic violence survivor, homeless and struggling.

This woman is one of many people who have fallen victim nationwide to callous behavior by judges so notorious within the profession they have their own moniker: “wayward judges.” They have lost their way as judges. As far back as 2008, National Law Journal published a piece, “Little public airing of abusive judges,” documenting how the 5th U.S. Circuit of Appeals had hired two psychiatrists to observe a wayward judge’s antics. Earlier this year, a New Jersey judge “pulled a gun in the courtroom — and then it got weird.” Last year, the Arkansas Supreme Court suspended a judge for “rude treatment of public defenders.” (He finally announced his retirement earlier this year.)

Judge Horan has held firm to his well-earned reputation as a courtroom bully for quite some time. In 2004, Journalist Chris L. Jenkins wrote an article for The Washington Post about Horan’s disapproval ratings amongst Virginia lawmakers. Horan was forced to retire shortly after the publication of Jenkins’ article but has still maintained the ability to serve as a substitute judge for the past 18 years. Although Judge Horan is notorious for lacking in judicious temperament and even though he was ousted from his role as General District Court Judge, Horan still earns his pension while also getting paid a daily rate as a regular substitute judge.

When the Virginia General Assembly elects to not reappoint wayward judges, also called “abusive judges,” for abusing their power, those same judges are able to quietly return to the bench through a back door and sit as substitute retired judges while they continue to collect their pension. Code § 16.1-69:35(b) allows the chief judge of the General District Court to designate a retired district judge to sit as a substitute judge and preside over matters, even if serious allegations of fitness were raised against that judge and they were possibly deemed unfit to sit on the bench by the General Assembly. This law is being used to circumvent and undermine the actions of legislators who have ousted judges like Horan. However, there is a way to fix the problem this law creates. Chief Judge Mayne has the power to prevent wayward judges from sitting as a substitute judge.

While Judge Horan’s courtroom antics and inability to maintain judicial temperament has been widely criticized by lawmakers, lawyers, law enforcement and citizens, Chief Judge Mayne continues to permit Horan to sit as a substitute judge. Judge Mayne is not ignorant of the charges that have repeatedly been leveraged against Horan in his current role as a substitute judge; however, she chooses to ignore the complaints and the fact that Horan was not re-appointed. The citizens need to encourage Chief Judge Mayne to protect them from his abuses.

Judge Horan is not alone in being rewarded for deplorable courtroom behavior. Fairfax County General District Court Judges Michael Cantrell and Mitchell Mutnick share the same judicious temperament as Judge Horan. Like Horan, both judges have received numerous complaints for many years. In March, the Virginia legislature also censured Fairfax County General District Court Judges Michael Cantrell and Mitchell Mutnick for being abusive toward citizens. They had both received embarrassingly low scores on their Judicial Performance Evaluations and complaints from court staff, citizens, lawyers and lawmakers. The Virginia legislature did not reappoint Mutnick or Cantrell and, instead, forced them to resign at the end of their terms. Based on performance evaluations, Cantrell scored last among 50 Virginia judges, and Mutnick scored especially poor for “patience,” “respect” and “bias and prejudice.”

As of this month, after a 90-day gap, Cantrell and Mutnick will be allowed to return as substitute judges, both receiving their pensions while earning a daily rate for serving.

If Chief Judge Mayne permits Cantrell and Mutnick to serve as substitute judges, as she does for Horan, she will be rewarding these wayward judges. How much longer must the people of Virginia be ruled by wayward judges? How much longer will we allow people’s rights to be violated by judges whose fitness to sit on the bench has been questioned? The time has come to take action to protect our community, in courtroom 1A and beyond, as well as the process.

Andi Geloo is a first-generation immigrant Muslim, lawyer and author of “Andi’s Law.” She earned her law degree from George Washington Law School with high honors and practices law in Fairfax County and the surrounding jurisdictions. She can be reached at [email protected]