IT IS JUST AS WELL that Norfolk Judge Vernon D. Hitchings Jr. dismissed the contempt citation he had issued against a woman who dared to criticize the way he runs his court and saved her the costs of defending herself against an absurd charge. But the judge's action should not be the end of the affair. The Virginia Judical Inquiry and Review Commission should begin at once the proceedings necessary to remove the judge from office.
The fact that Judge Hitchings filed a contempt charge against Frances Savage for writing a critical letter to the editor is enough, by itself, to demonstrate his unfitness for the beach. Any judge should know - and any good lawyer can find out in five minutes in a law library - that the Supreme Court ruled such charges unconstitutional 30 years ago. A publication that attempts to influence the outcome of a particular case may, in some rare circumstances, be in contempt. But criticism of judgicial conduct in cases that have been concluded, as were those Mrs. Savage was writing about, clearly is not. If the judge has been accurately quoted about this subject in the Norfolk newspapers, his knowledge of the law and of his own powers is sorely deficient.
According to the reports from Norfolk, Mrs. Savage's description of Judge Hitchings's court - she called it a "three-ring, circus" - seems accurate. Even in a traffic court no judge can handle 200 to 300 cases a day as he has been doing - and give the appearance of administering justice. Unfortunately, lawyers are generally reluctant to complain about the conduct of the judges before whom they appear, and it takes someone like Mrs. Savage to bring problems out into the open. The judgicial inquiry commission should welcome her testimony not only concerning the contempt citation but also concerning what she saw in Judge Hitchings's courtroom.