Circuit Court Judge James P. Fisher is facing calls for censure less than three years into his first term after he jailed an alleged victim of domestic violence in the middle of her testimony, asserting that she was under the influence of marijuana.
Critics including longtime advocate for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault and for women’s rights Lisa Sales, Commonwealth’s Attorney Buta Biberaj, two county supervisors, the woman’s attorney Thomas Plofchan have called for the General Assembly to take action against Fisher. And, they warned, Fisher’s actions could further discourage survivors from reporting a crime that they already have difficulty bringing to the justice system and winning in court.
“To treat victims as though they are criminals themselves is unforgivable and should not be tolerated,” Sales said during a Thursday morning protest outside the Loudoun County courthouse.. “Judge Fisher should have been calling balls and strikes in this proceeding, and he should not himself have been prosecuting the victim.”
The woman, Katie Orndoff, was testifying in case against James Paige Phillips, who is charged with felony assault and battery of a family member, third or subsequent offense. He is accused of punching her twice in face while she was driving on Rt. 15, and has pleaded not guilty.
About 90 minutes into Orndoff’s testimony, Fisher interrupted proceedings to ask her if she was intoxicated. During the exchange, she admitted to smoking marijuana earlier in the day. Fisher declared her in contempt of court and sentenced her to 10 days in jail, the maximum sentence permitted. After being held for two days, Orndoff was released from jail on $1,000 bail.
During that interaction and in subsequent filings, Fisher wrote that she appeared intoxicated and almost fell out of her chair—accusations not supported by other detectives and attorneys who had interacted with her before and during the trial. Video of the incident shows Orndoff reacting confusedly and incredulously after the unexpected ruling and being ordered to jail.
“What is going on? I didn’t even do anything,” she said. “What am I supposed to do? I don’t understand.” She began crying before she was escorted out. Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Elena R. Ventura, who was prosecuting the case, asked Fisher to reconsider, a request he denied.
Fisher’s on-the-spot investigation and prosecution has attorneys warning he violated Ordoff’s due process rights—she was not informed of charges against her, never read her Miranda rights, and had no opportunity to access things like an attorney—and could further discourage domestic and sexual violence victims from coming forward. Since she was ordered to jail, attorney Thomas Plofchan has taken her case, further arguing that Fisher’s order to have Orndoff’s blood drawn and tested for narcotics—marijuana not being a narcotic—was also illegal, having been done without a warrant and after she was already convicted. Fisher also ordered the results of the blood draw to be filed with the Clerk of the Court, which Plofchan argued violated her right to medical privacy.
“There is no authority for a Court to order a blood draw in hopes of substantiating or justifying its previously illegal actions with regard to the finding of contempt,” reads a brief filed seeking to overturn the contempt conviction.
During the Sept. 23 protest, Sales relayed a statement from Plofchan, who was in court at the time, which included a statement attributed to Orndoff. She denied being under the influence of drugs, and said not only did she suffer abuse from her significant other, but was punished for testifying after the stress and anxiety or reporting it to the police, speaking through prosecutors, and the pressures of the trial and cross-examination.
“I have learned that it does no good to report domestic abuse because the system and the courts appear to have no real interest in protecting victims and punishing abusers,” said Orndoff’s statement. “The judge has sent me a clear message. I do not know how being nervous about confronting the man who beat me allows a judge who admits he was speculating to conclude without evidence that I was under the influence of narcotics, which I never took. I will never feel safe reporting abuse again because doing so does not protect me.”
Plofchan’s statement as relayed by Sales called on citizens to “demand correction and justice,” and not tolerate court orders “that don’t reflect truth.” He called for an independent investigation. And pointed out that the Canons of Judicial Conduct prohibit a judge from conducting an independent investigation inside the courtroom.
“Why do these orders say what they say? Why do they say false things? What is the motivation or reason an order would contain such untruths?” Sales read from Plofchan’s statement. “Demand accountability and investigation. We cannot be free and confident in our judicial system when orders are allowed to be entered that do not reflect the truth that is verified by audio and video. We cannot be free.”
County Supervisor Juli E. Briskman (D-Algonkian) reiterated her and county Vice Chair Koran T. Saines (D-Sterling)’s calls for Fisher to face consequences from the General Assembly, which controls judicial appointments.
“This misogynistic, sexist and patriarchal behavior has no place on the bench or in our judicial system,” Briskman said. “Our judicial system is built, hopefully, to mete out justice no matter your gender, no matter your religious affiliation, no matter your sexual orientation, or your socioeconomic status. In this case, Judge Fisher failed to do that.”
And Loudoun Abused Women’s Shelter Executive Director Judy Hanley encouraged survivors to reach out for help despite Fisher’s actions.
“We are deeply saddened by the recent events, not only with the victim re-traumatized, but I’m also afraid it will prevent some survivors for reaching out for help,” Hanley said. “We want to make sure everyone is aware of LAWS’s domestic violence and sexual assault services, and that we provide services regardless of whether the victim wants to engage in the [legal] system or not.”
Outgoing Arlington state Del. Mark Levine (D-45), who during the last session sat on the House of Delegates Courts of Justice Committee, and whose sister was murdered by her abuser, also came out to call for action. He also pointed out survivors of domestic or sexual violence often do not report those crimes.
“They think no one will listen, they think no one will care, they think it’s a misogynist system and the patriarchy won’t help them. They think that men don’t care. They think that Virginians don’t care. Well, Judge Fisher doesn’t care,” Levine said.
Both Levine and Sales called for tougher vetting for judges before their appointments. In Fisher’s case, he was the first and only candidate to appear before a joint session of the House and Senate Courts of Justice Committees to determine which candidates were qualified to be appointed to judgeships. Fauquier Now reported the hearing was three minutes long, and Fisher faced no questions.
Fisher, a former Fauquier County Commonwealth’s Attorney and Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney in Loudoun, was appointed to the bench in 2019 over the objections of the Loudoun legal community. The General Assembly fast-tracked Fisher’s appointment, sidelining attorneys who had been interviewed by the Loudoun Bar Association.
“This judge shows what happens when you don’t vet someone,” Levine said. “This judge was not vetted at all. Now, he’ll be vetted, I hope, by the Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission that will sanction this judge for his lawless conduct. … She has a constitutional right to due process. If a judge doesn’t understand that basic constitutional right, this judge should not be on the bench.”
And, Levine pointed out, Phillips is accused of a third offense.
“If that violent criminal, who should have been convicted but can’t be because of the judge, goes out and harms another person, well, that person’s blood is on this judge’s hands,” Levine said.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Buta Biberaj said nobody else, including attorneys and Sheriff’s Office deputies present at the time, observed that Orndoff was intoxicated or impaired.
“When you’re a witness, you are naked because you don’t know what you’re going to be asked. You don’t know what questions somebody’s going to be able to throw at you. You have nothing to protect you but the judge,” Biberaj said.
And, Biberaj pointed out, Fisher’s actions denied the defendant his day in court as well—Fisher declared a mistrial, and Phillips remains in jail awaiting a new trial. She said her office will try once again to prosecute the alleged abuser.
“I don’t know if that’s a futile effort, because I don’t know if we have a victim who’s willing to come to testify,” Biberaj said. “I don’t know how she does come to court and subject herself to that again.”
Sales, who organized the protest, is longtime advocate for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault and for women’s rights, who was dragged into the news after she was sexually assaulted by her former tenant, leading to a struggle for justice not only for that assault and uncovering a Central Intelligence Agency connection. From documents the perpetrator left in her house, she pieced together that he was the son of one of the CIA’s spying assets in Russia, and someone who the CIA had likely relocated to the U.S.
Since that time, she has been active in working for women’s rights, serving as the former chair of the Fairfax County Commission for Women and on the Fairfax Council to End Domestic Violence, the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance policy committee, and the Equal Rights Amendment Coalition Advisory Council. She said judges should face more oversight, and should be required to undergo continuing education while on the bench.
The protest had been scheduled to coincide with an appearance in court to hear motions from Biberaj and Plofchan seeking to vacate the conviction for contempt, an appearance which Fisher averted the day before with a formal order stating it would not be reconsidered.
Loudoun Now is attempting to reach Fisher for comment.