A Norfolk traffic court judge has cited a woman for contempt of court because she called the judge's court "a three-ring circus" in a letter published by a newspaper.
General District Court Judge Vernon D. Hitchings Jr., whose courtroom procedures have troubled some bar association officials, ordered Frances Savage of Norfolk to appear in his court Tuesday to explain why she should not be fined or jailed because of her letter.
But the 58-year-old grandmother, who said she believed she had a constitutional right to her opinion of the judge, promised yesterday she would fight Hitchings all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary. "The judge probably thought he was dealing with some timid old lady, but he isn't ," Savage said in an interview.
"I felt perhaps I was in Russia rather than Norfolk, Virginia" when the summons arrived, said the retired bookkepper and mother of three grown children.
Angered by the way Hitchings handled a case involving her husband, Savage had written to The Virginian-Pilot, a Norfolk newspaper, that Hitching's court resembled "a three-ring circus where the innocent have no voice or change to state their case."
The day after that letter appeared Hitchings, who typically hears between 200 and 300 cases a day, issued the contempt summons. If convicted Savage faces a fine of $50 or up to 10 days in jail, Norris E. Halpern, her lawyer, said.
Hitchings, 59, who has been Norfolk's only traffic court judge for more than 20 years, is known for running through his cases in rapid order, often cutting off defendants in mid-sentence and sometimes telling lawyers to "shut up," according to attorneys who have practiced in his court.
Hitchings has refused to comment on the summons.
Hitchings' summons outraged some civil libertarians who said a Supreme Court ruling in 1941 should have resolved the question of whether Savage's opinion was protected under the First Amendment's free press guarantee. "It sound unconstitutional," said Jack Landau, an attorney associated with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Washington.
"It sounds to me like he is blatantly abridging her freedom of speech," said Besty Brinson, head of the American Civil Liberties Union's Southern Women's Rights Project in Richmond.
Norfolk lawyers familiar with Hitchings, however, said they were not as surprised by the judge's action.
"Vernon is a very pompous individual" who "has incurred the wrath of many lawyers because he won't let witnesses testify," one lawyer who asked not to be named said. "The poor client sometimes walks up to me and says, "What happened?" And sometimes I have to call the (court) clerk to find out what happened."
Other attorneys said Hitchings has adopted an unusual approach to dealing with his heavy load telling groups of 25 to 30 individual defendants at a time to appear simultaneously before him.
The benefits of this method, according to one critical lawyer, is that it enables the judge to wade through his traffic docket before the morning session is over. But the procedure specifically contravenes the American Bar Association's guidelines on traffic court procedures, which recommend that each defendant be allowed to make a separate appearance and be given time to state his defense.
"Other lawyers from (neighboring) Newport News and Hampton have come over here and been utterly shocked," one attorney said.
But Hitchings, who drives a 1952 Chevrolet, has steadfastly refused to change his style and, as chief General District Court judge for Norfolk, has retained all the city's traffic cases to himself, arguing that his stern style is in part responsible for a reduction in traffic accidents in Norfolk.
In the case that provoked the summons Hitchings acquired Savage's husband, a furniture some manager, of a charge of failing to yield the right of way in an accident. That is not what angered Savage.
She said the judge refused to hear her husband's side or his witnesses and also dismissed charges against another driver involved in the accident.