In a ruling that provides compelling evidence that Virginia is in dire need of judicial reform, 20th Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey W. Parker (Fauquier County) Dec. 21 dismissed charges brought by farmer Martha Boneta against the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) while allowing Boneta’s case against her neighbors, Phillip and Patricia Thomas, to proceed.
In a case that has attracted national attention, Boneta, owner of a 64-acre farm in Paris, Va., and her Piedmont Agriculture Academy, LLC (PAA), charged the PEC with unlawful and unreasonable conduct in connection with the enforcement of a conservation easement on PAA’s farm, including instigating and coordinating litigation against PAA with Mr. Thomas to purportedly enforce the conservation easement even though Thomas is not a holder of the easement and cannot legally have enforcement rights, encouraging Fauquier County officials to issue unwarranted zoning citations against PAA; and encouraging government officials to audit PAA.
Even though Boneta presented mountains of evidence
showing collusion between the PEC and the Thomases, Parker dropped all charges against the Warrenton, Va.-based land trust. In fact, the allegations against the two parties were the same. How impartial was Judge Parker? Months before the PEC case was even heard, Judge Parker proclaimed from the bench that he “didn’t believe the PEC was guilty of wrongdoing.” This bizarre statement foreshadowed how Parker would rule when the case and the evidence were finally before him nearly a year later. For her part, Boneta plans to appeal the ruling and has separate suit pending against the PEC.
Fit to Serve on the Bench?
In accordance with Virginia law, the Executive Secretary of the Virginia Supreme Court Dec. 1 submitted evaluation reports for 27 judges eligible for reappointment. Among the circuit court judges to be officially evaluated for reappointment, Judge Parker finished dead last. All told, 155 attorneys and jurors submitted evaluations of Judge Parker. Of those, only 56% found that he displays knowledge of the law every time, only 58% found that he is faithful to the law every time, only 54% found that he allows lawyers appropriate latitude in presenting their case every time, and only 58% found that he exhibits fairness to all parties every time. Only 55.6% rated Judge Parker’s performance as “excellent.”
During his stormy 16-year term, Parker has seen many of his decision overturned. Widespread anger over the judge’s erratic behavior led Virginians from all walks of life to gather in Richmond Dec. 2 to air their complaints before the Courts of Justice Committee’s Judicial Review. Citing Parker’s controversial rulings in cases ranging from domestic abuse to land-use disputes, outraged Virginians demanded that Parker not be reappointed.
Unlike most states, where judges are elected and thus accountable to the public they serve, judges in Virginia are appointed to the bench by a committee of the General Assembly. The General Assembly’s Courts of Justice Committee is composed of practicing attorneys and other members of the bar who, at one time or another, may have cases before the very judges they appoint and reappoint. This odd arrangement, rife with potential conflicts of interest, explains why relatively few judges are not reappointed. Furthermore, Virginia’s judges are not subject to term limits and generally don’t vacate the bench until they retire.
Virginia’s circuit court judges are appointed for terms of eight years. Parker’s next term would begin April 30. Parker, 65, has acknowledged suffering from severe hip and back pain and has indicated that he might not serve out his full term, pointing out that he’s eligible for retirement in two years. “It hasn’t been easy,” Parker told fauquiernow.com (Dec. 16). “I’m still struggling through it.”
Why would the Courts of Justice Committee reappoint a judge who has received such poor evaluations for his performance on the bench and whose health may not allow him to carry out his duties much longer?
In deciding cases, judges are not only issuing legal opinions, and in some cases setting legal precedents, they are also determining the fate of the people who come before them.
Virginians, whether plaintiffs or defendants, have the right to expect that the judges who hear their cases are competent, fair, as well as physically and mentally capable of discharging their duties.
“Justice is Supposed to be Blind and without Bias”
“It is heartbreaking to know that a sitting judge would have such an unfavorable history and continue to be on the bench,” Boneta said. “The ethical conduct of our judiciary is fundamental to a fair and just legal system. No citizen in the United States should be so maliciously targeted only to face a judge who seems to encourage collusion and bullying of the citizenry. Justice is supposed to be blind and without bias. It is my hope and prayer that no American citizen ever has to suffer the way we have on our family farm.”
As a first step toward judicial reform in Virginia, the Courts of Justice Committee should refuse to reappoint Judge Parker.