Wednesday, October 15, 2014
CJP Charges Fresno Jurist With Abuse of Authority
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A Fresno Superior Court judge abused his authority by ordering an acquaintance facing a domestic violence charge released on his own recognizance, in violation of statute, the Commission on Judicial Performance has alleged.
Judge James M. Petrucelli, who has been on the bench since 1999 and been disciplined by the commission on at least three prior occasions, violated numerous provisions of the Code of Judicial Ethics in his handling of the release of Jay Ghazal last year, the commission said in a notice of formal proceedings made public yesterday.
The judge’s lawyer, Kathleen Ewins, told the Fresno Bee in an email that Petrucelli “admits that he made a mistake and is willing to accept discipline short of the loss of his job.” The attorney said she was confident the special masters who will hear evidence in the case “will recognize that Judge Petrucelli did not engage in willful misconduct, and that he should not be removed from office.”
The commission alleges that Petrucelli acted in response to a text message from Jonathan Netzer, a Fresno personal injury attorney. Netzer, Ghazal, and Petrucelli, the commission charged, all know each other and attend events organized by a local cigar store, as well as a monthly cigars-and-barbeque event organized by the attorney.
After speaking to Netzer by phone, Petrucelli called the jail and told personnel to release Ghazal on his own recognizance. He did so, the commission said, contrary to Penal Code §1270, which says that a defendant charged with any of the specified crimes, including spousal abuse, shall not be released OR except following a hearing in open court, with two days’ notice to the prosecution.
It was, the commission, said, also unethical for Petrucelli to intercede in a case involving social acquaintances.
“The matter of Mr. Ghazal’s release was not properly before you, and you would have been disqualified had the matter come before you in the ordinary course of judicial business because of your relationship with both Mr. Ghazal and Mr. Netzer.”
The commission also charged Petrucelli with having an improper communication with Ghazal at a fundraiser after his release. The notice of proceedings says Petrucelli told Ghazal “to stay away from his wife,” and that Ghazal then asked Petrucelli for advice about a lawyer.
Two days later, Petrucelli called a lawyer on Ghazal’s behalf, then told Ghazal to call the lawyer, the commission says.
Petrucelli’s conduct violated ethical rules requiring judges to uphold the integrity of the judiciary; avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety; refrain from using judicial office to benefit friends, relatives, and acquaintances and from creating the appearance that the judge is susceptible to outside influence; refrain from using the office to advance private interests; be faithful to the law; avoid improper ex parte communications; and to avoid conflicts of interest, the commission said.
Petrucelli was a sheriff’s deputy for 15 years and a civil lawyer for nine years before he was elected to the bench in 1998. In an email to the Bee yesterday, he expressed regret for making the call to the jail “without knowing the precise nature of the charges against his acquaintance, and without fully thinking through the issues,” the newspaper reported on its website.
He also said that when he was a deputy sheriff, judges would “from time to time” call the jail and ask that individuals be released on their own recognizance.
Petrucelli was publicly admonished by the CJP in 2007 for making discourteous and sarcastic remarks from the bench, both to attorneys and to individuals appearing before him. The commission cited 10 incidents between 2002 and 2006, six of which occurred while Petrucelli was handling family law cases and the remainder during his subsequent assignment to traffic court in Coalinga.
At the time of the admonishment, the commission disclosed that the judge received private discipline for similar misconduct in 2001 and 2002.
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