Traffic judge Vernon D. Hitchings Jr. dismissed a contempt citation against a 58-year-old Norfolk woman yesterday a few hours before she was to explain to him why she had described his court as "a three-ring circus" in a newspaper letter.
The 59-year-old judge refused to tell reporters why his charge against retired bookkeeper Frances Savage was being dropped. But he was quoted in a Norfolk newspaper today as saying that he is still convinced that Savage is guilty of contempt of court for criticizing him in a newspaper.
"Judges, while they are subject to freedom of speech, criticism and expression of opinion, do not have to endure misrepresentations of fact or character misrepresentations," the judge was quoted as saying. The jurist defended his contempt action saying that, under Virginia law, the critical letter amounted to "a clear and present danger to the judicial efficiency of the court and the judge."
The judge's surprise action in dropping the charge left Savage at once frustated and triumphant. The gray-haired mother of two and grandmother of three had promised to take her First Amendment fight "all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary." Yesterday she told reporters at her Norfolk home that she would ask the American Bar Association to begin investigating "procedures" in Hitchins's court.
"I want justice," Savage said. "My case is not over. I feel that I now have a responsibility to the people of this community to see that the practices in our local courts be examined."
Savage was infurated that Hitchings had dismissed charges in a minor traffic case against her husband, Nathan Savage, and another driver without listening to her husband's defense or hearing his witnesses.
Frances Savage had written a paper letter saying: "After a morning in traffic court, I have come to the conclusion that if crime is running rampant in Norfolk, it is because the innocent have no voice or chance to state their views." The day after her letter appeared, she was handed a contempt summons issued by Hitchings which carried a potential sentence of a $50 fine or up to 10 days in jail, or both.
Press law specialists and legal scholars had called the summons "without precedent" and "blatantly unconstitutional." Hitchings' action also stirred many people in Norfolk as well.
"Ninety-nine percent of the people in this town think she had every right to say what she wanted to say," said Marilyn Doheny, a part-time bank employe, indignantly yesterday. "If I hadn't had to go to work today, I would have gone to court to support her," she added.
Within hours of issuing his summons, the gruff-voiced judge, who is chief judge of Norfolk's General District Court, found much of this seaport city arrayed against him.
On Sunday, The Virginian-Pilot and Ledger Star ran an editorial entitled "Leave Her Alone" in which the newspaper said that while Hitchings "may well have a reasonalbe explanation" for his action, "what matters is the right of Mrs. Savage to express views free from the . . . threat of a summons to spend time in jail."
The newspaper followed up its editorial yesterday by spreading over two pages 15 letters to the editors concerning the Savage case, only one of which supported Hitchings.
In the five days since she received the summons, Savage said she had been "besieged" with phone calls and letters from people who had experienced frustrations similar to hers in Norfolk traffic court. Others from out of state who had seen television network stories also called to voice their support she said.
Savage, who is Jewish, said one rabbi had called with an offer to celebrate Rosh Hashannah - the Jewish New Year - with her if it passed while she was in jail.
Another woman offered an unlimited supply of chicken soup, Savage said.
Meanwhile, Hitching's traffic court, whose procedures have disturbed some bar association officials, opened as usual yesterday with Hitchings, apparently untroubled by the ruckus he created.
Hitchings' methods have drawn criticism because of the speed with which he wades through his typical weekday docket of 200 to 300 cases. Hitchings was quoted today as priding himself that he had run his traffic court "like a railroad" for almost 25 years.
Yesterday morning, for example, his first case took three minutes. The judge cut short the attorney's cross-examination of the investigating police officer and meted out a suspended $40 fine and court costs for running a stop sign. The second case took about 90 seconds to decide - Hitchings dismissed the charge. His third case only took about two minutes for the judge to find the party guilty and impose a fine for driving while drunk.