Thursday, October 30, 2014
Judge Admits Abusing Authority, Calls It ‘Isolated Incident’
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A Fresno Superior Court judge has admitted he abused his authority by ordering an acquaintance facing a domestic violence charge released on his own recognizance, as alleged by the Commission on Judicial Performance.
But Judge James M. Petrucelli, in a verified answer to the notice of formal proceedings issued by the commission two weeks ago, said his intentions were honorable and he does not deserve to be kicked out of office.
The jurist, who has been on the bench since 1999 and been disciplined by the commission on at least three prior occasions, acknowledged that he violated numerous provisions of the Code of Judicial Ethics in his handling of the release of Jay Ghazal last year.
Petrucelli admitted that his 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.
But he “did not in bad faith, for a corrupt purpose, with knowledge that his act was beyond his judicial power, or in conscious disregard of the limits of his authority,” according to the response prepared by San Francisco attorney Kathleen Ewins and verified by the judge.
“Rather, this was an isolated incident that Judge Petrucelli admits was a mistake for which he should suffer discipline short of removal,” the document reads.
The judge admitted that he ordered Ghazal’s release after receiving a text message from Jonathan Netzer, a Fresno personal injury attorney. Netzer, Ghazal, and Petrucelli, all know each other and attend events organized by a local cigar store.
After speaking to Netzer by phone, Petrucelli called the jail and told personnel to release Ghazal on his own recognizance. But he said in his answer that he did not realize at the time that he was violating 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.
He said he now realizes that he cannot properly grant an “honor release” in a domestic violence case, or in a case not assigned to him.
He also acknowledged having briefly spoken to Ghazal at a fundraiser after the restaurateur’s release, that Ghazal asked him for advice about a lawyer, and that he called a lawyer on Ghazal’s behalf, then told Ghazal to call the lawyer.
Ghazal later pled no contest to misdemeanor false imprisonment and disobeying a domestic relations court order.
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. He said that at the time he was contacted by Netzer, he believed he had the authority to order Ghazal’s release because he was aware of prior incidents in which honor releases were ordered by other judges.
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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