Judge Considers Motion to Vacate Contempt Conviction against Domestic Assault Victim

Loudoun County Circuit Court Judge James P. Fisher today heard arguments in a motion to vacate his controversial contempt of court conviction against an alleged victim who was testifying in a domestic assault trial.  While taking the case under advisement for a later ruling, the judge continued to defend his actions.

Katie Orndoff was testifying during a Sept. 7 jury trial on allegations that her then-boyfriend punched her in the face twice in July 2020 while she was driving a car on Rt. 15 near Leesburg when Fisher stopped the trial and asked if she was intoxicated. During the questioning, Orndoff stated that she had consumed marijuana before coming to court that day. Fisher found her in contempt of court and sentenced her to 10 days in jail starting immediately, and he declared a mistrial in the case.

Both Orndoff and the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office appealed, saying the action was unwarranted and unconstitutional. Also victims’ rights advocates have pushed for Fisher to be removed from the bench. 

Orndoff was released from jail after two days, pending action on the appeal.

Orndoff’s attorney, Thomas K. Plofchan, argued that Fisher erred in questioning Orndoff without advising her of her rights or allowing access to an attorney, and that he lacked the authority to issue summary contempt conviction based on evidence known to the court at that time. Additionally, he argued that Orndoff’s conduct did not meet the tests for contempt in that there was no evidence she intended to disrupt or obstruct the court proceedings or had done so.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Buta Biberaj, who supports the motion to vacate the conviction, said that those who came into contact with Orndoff before she took the stand, including two detectives, did not notice any signs of intoxication. 

Fisher said he would delay his ruling until he had reviewed the 39-page brief and the exhibits submitted by Plofchan on Sept. 22. 

“You’re giving me a lot to think about,” the judge said after Plofchan’s and Biberaj’s presentations.

However, Fisher took time to address two specific criticisms—that he had misinterpreted what he saw or heard during Orndoff’s testimony, and that his action would have a chilling impact on domestic abuse victims being willing to testify in court in the future.

Fisher said that, in reviewing the transcript of Orndoff’s nearly one and a half hours of testimony, he found 10 instances in which she was cautioned after she “blurted out” prejudicial comments dealing with information the attorneys had agreed not to raise in front of the jury. He said her answers were at times circuitous, contradictory, and non-responsive. Fisher specifically pointed to a time about 45 minutes into her testimony, when “things went downhill fast.” He attributed that change to the marijuana she consumed earlier taking effect. 

However, Fisher said that he saw no malevolent intent in Orndoff’s actions. Plofchan noted that conclusion was significant because intent to be disruptive is a required element for a contempt conviction. 

Fisher also refuted criticisms raised in a brief filed by the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office that his sanction against Orndoff could deter other victims from testifying in the future. 

“I completely reject that argument,” Fisher said. He cited his 30 years of experience as a defense attorney and prosecutor working with domestic assault victims, as well as having established a nonprofit organization supporting victims’ rights. Fisher said that he also was looking out for the rights of the defendant in the case who has been held in jail for seven months awaiting trial.

While Fisher has several options to consider, Plofchan said that any action other than a vacation of the conviction would move the case to the Virginia Court of Appeals in hopes of clearing Orndoff’s name.

“First of all, she doesn’t want to be a criminal,” Plofchan said after the hearing. “She doesn’t want to become a criminal because she came to court to make sure that somebody else was found a criminal because he punched her twice in the face. I think that would be devastating for her.”

4 thoughts on “Judge Considers Motion to Vacate Contempt Conviction against Domestic Assault Victim

  • 2021-10-21 at 7:09 pm

    It seems as if Judge Fisher is continuing to bash the alleged victim, Katie Orndoff. I think he should leave well enough alone & bow out gracefully. He’s brought enough disrepute to the bench. Please step down & give someone else a chance. Justice 4 Katie.

  • 2021-10-21 at 10:50 pm

    I have contempt for this judge. Guys who act tough and needlessly beat women do so to compensate for their insecurity about their own virility and competence. It seems the judge is trying to finish the beat down that the boyfriend started. This judge should be fired as he doesn’t understand how to administer justice with grace or wisdom.

  • 2021-10-23 at 3:53 pm

    If this is being reported correctly, then Judge Fisher has shown a significant lack of knowledge in this case, which sadly reflects very badly on the otherwise excellent reputation earned by all other Virginia judges.

    Judge Fisher defends his actions by saying that after 45 minutes or so the witness ‘went downhill’ which he asserts is due to the marijuana taking effect. Now, even assuming she smoked in the parking lot and walked into the courthouse, there would have been at least an hour’s delay between smoking and going downhill — but that’s theoretical only. As a member of the bar (not practicing in front of this judge) I am confident that hours passed due to the time involved in getting into the courthouse (parking, screening, etc.), then meeting with the detectives as well as the defense attorney, followed by the case starting, opening statements being made, and so forth. It’s likely several hours passed. Anyone who has ever smoked pot knows the effect is reasonably immediate — there is no way the pot suddenly took effect 45 minutes into her testimony. I accept on faith that Judge Fisher never smoked marijuana — but he has a duty to educate himself and know the most basic information about the laws he is enforcing. He failed in that duty, and the witness spent two days in jail due to his failure to know what he is talking about and in the way he conducted himself.

    Judge, please dismiss the charge against this woman, recuse yourself, and get some education from someone who has first-hand knowledge of the effect of drugs. You don’t need to smoke a joint yourself, but you should talk to someone who has. Watching “Reefer Madness” isn’t the same as a good CLE (Continuing Legal Education) program.

    And please don’t try to argue that she used edibles which may have delayed the effects. The initial article and the followup articles (although not this article) clearly refer to the witness smoking pot, not ‘consuming’ it a la edibles.

    And what domestic violence victim wouldn’t be concerned about testifying in front of Judge Fisher in light of this case? The judge may believe himself to be a strong victim’s rights advocate, and he may well be; but we are often the most blind to our own actions until they are pointed out. The errors have now been pointed up. Man up, acknowledge the errors, and strive to do better.

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