RICHMOND, JAN. 12 -- When Thomas F. Coates III ran into Virginia Supreme Court Justice John Charles Thomas while attending a Christmas party here last month, the Richmond lawyer took the opportunity to introduce his date to the judge.
But then, in a classic example of a remark later regretted, Coates cursed the justice "for not ruling in my favor in my emergency corporate case a few weeks ago."
Coates, 43, does not contest using "crude" and "coarse" language when he spoke to the judge Dec. 19 at the Omni Hotel, where they had attended separate holiday parties. He says the justice just took it the wrong way.
Two days after their meeting, Thomas, citing a Virginia law that makes it a crime to utter "vile, contemptuous or insulting langugage addressed to . . . a judge," filed papers citing Coates for criminal contempt and ordering him to stand trial. The hearing is scheduled for Friday.
The law under which Coates is accused says that "judges may punish summarily," which one lawyer here said in jest means "that the judge can zap him from the bench, execute him on the spot."
A spokesman for the state attorney general's office, which will represent the judge at the hearing, said the maximum punishment is believed to be a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Coates said the case about which he had complained to the judge was settled amicably last summer.
The day after being served the contempt papers, Coates wrote a two-page, handwritten letter to Thomas, saying he was "in shock" that he had offended the judge and apologizing profusely.
"Without intending to be, I was rude and impolite," Coates wrote. He added that he thought his remark, in the context of "the cordial and jocular tone of the discussion, made it clear that I was speaking in a completely facetious, disjunctive and affectionate manner, and without intending any affront.
"I recognize this is not an excuse for being impolite, or for just plain rudeness, even if unintended, and I can see how Your Honor could have taken offense at my coarse language even if you knew no offense was intended."
Coates added, "I hold you and your position as a particularly distinguished member of the court in the highest of esteem."
Thomas, 38, who was appointed to the state's highest court in 1982 by then-Gov. Charles S. Robb, would not comment on the case.
A lawyer hired by Coates to represent him at Friday's hearing said the case has free-speech implications.
A memorandum submitted in Coates' behalf cites an opinion, written by Thomas, in which the court overturned a lower court judge who found that the use of a number of abusive and repulsive words were actionable.
Several lawyers here said they could not recall the law that Coates is accused of violating ever been used against a lawyer. According to Coates' memorandum, it was invoked in 1953 against an Arlington minister who, from the pulpit, accused an Arlington judge of making a ruling that had political overtones, and in 1969 against a newspaper that criticized a judge's decision in a reapportionment case. In both instances, the rulings were overturned on appeal.