Christa Pehl Evans left jury duty at the Fresno Superior Courthouse last month feeling humiliated by a judge she alleges had disdain for her job as a stay-at-home mom.
Pehl Evans, a mother of three children under the age of 7, who sometimes teaches as an adjunct professor at Fresno Pacific University, raised her hand in court during jury selection on Nov. 20, asking Judge James Petrucelli to excuse her from serving on the case, saying she needs to take care of her children. She breastfeeds her youngest and home-schools the others.
She said Petrucelli’s response left her feeling bullied, and called his line of questioning anti-woman and anti-mother.
“He had this attitude toward me that I was some dumb mom, which is a broader problem in this country,” she said. “I have a PhD from Princeton, and being a mother is the hardest job I’ve ever done. I felt like I had to defend myself for mothering my children.”
According to court documents, when Pehl Evans asked to be excused, Petrucelli asked who was caring for her children at that moment. She replied that her husband had stayed home from work.
“What happens when he does not take a day off or if you are sick?” Petrucelli asked.
Pehl Evans replied, “I take care of my kids when I’m sick.”
Petrucelli then asked, “If you got hit by a Mack truck and went to the hospital?”
“That would be an issue. It has not happened yet,” she replied.
Another mother gets questioned
Then Petrucelli questioned another mother in the jury box.
That woman was a stay-at-home mother of an 18-month-old and is pregnant, and also asked to be excused. Petrucelli asked what her husband did for a living. When the woman replied that he was a doctor, Petrucelli said that she could afford child care.
“I’m amazed that people don’t have child care available to them,” Petrucelli said, according to the transcript.
That woman could not be reached, but Pehl Evans said Petrucelli’s questions to that mother were off-putting. “For me, I understood that she was worried about the regularity of her child’s schedule,” Pehl Evans said. “But it was like he just wanted her to suck it up. I found it very offensive and insensitive.”
Pehl Evans was excused from her November jury duty for a temporary hardship but ordered to return to serve in January. “I’ll have to go through all of this again,” she said.
She took to Facebook to blast the judge for what she felt was an attack on her, the other mother in the jury box and mothers everywhere.
“I am more than happy to serve on the jury when my children are older, but my most important duty to this country at this moment is to raise loving human beings, a job that consumes me all day and many nights...” she wrote. “We can #metoo all we want about sexual assault, but until we respect mothering as a valid and important occupation, we have a major sexist problem. Paid work is not the only work that matters.”
The Fresno County Superior Court opened a waiting room in 2009 that provides childcare to any one conducting business there, including jurors and defendants.
‘I’m not offended by anything I said’
In an interview in his chambers, Petrucelli initially denied some of the comments Pehl Evans alleged and said, “As I sit here, I have no recollection of the lady that’s complaining on Facebook.”
But after he reviewed the court transcripts, he stood by his comments, saying his questions were meant to identify a financial hardship.
“It’s my responsibility to ask those questions. I’m not offended by anything I said,” he said. “But people have different sensitivities.”
After first denying the Mack truck comment, upon reviewing the transcript, Petrucelli said, “I have said that to people before, to make a point about what happens if there’s an emergency.”
Petrucelli added, “I do have a tendency to get people’s attention. There’s no two ways about it.”
He said he had not heard from Pehl Evans since court, and denied her allegations that his questions were hateful.
“Why wouldn’t somebody call me and have me apologize if they’re offended? It is not my job or thought process to offend anybody. I do this every day. We have thousands and thousands and thousands of jurors come through,” he said. “I mean, I have so many people come up to me away from court and tell me what a wonderful experience it was to be in my courtroom and so on.”
In 2015, the state judicial commission censured Petrucelli for ordering correctional officers to release from jail a friend who was facing domestic violence charges, calling his actions “serious misconduct.”
In 2007, he was reprimanded by the commission for poor behavior toward lawyers and county employees in his courtroom and for making comments that are “discourteous, sarcastic or demeaning to those appearing before him.”
In 2001 and 2002, Petrucelli received two advisory letters reprimanding him for infringing on attorneys’ rights and raising his voice with county employees.
Then, he told The Bee that he accepted the public admonishment and no longer acts that way in the courtroom.
Last week when he met for the interview on this story, Petrucelli initially declined to be recorded and said “you’ve challenged me in my official capacity.”
Petrucelli was elected as judge in 1998 after working as a Fresno sheriff’s deputy and civil attorney. He was last re-elected in November 2016, when he ran unopposed. He is up for re-election in 2022.