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.”