Marek Warszawski

Judge’s words to Fresno mom may not have been offensive to him, but they are to me

Being a judge is a difficult job. You and I can’t pretend to know what it’s like to don a black robe and mete out rough justice with a gavel.

We also can’t pretend to know what it’s like to preside over a room full of prospective jurors, many of whom will use any excuse they can dredge up to avoid serving. Have to imagine it gets rather frustrating and, at times, exasperating.

I try to keep this in mind before rendering my own verdict on Fresno Superior Court Judge James Petrucelli and his rather indelicate benchside manner as brought to light by Christa Pehl Evans, a Fresno mother of three who homeschools her children.

In a story and accompanying video by Bee colleagues Mackenzie Mays and John Walker, Pehl Evans expressed how she felt bullied by Petrucelli and demeaned by his line of questioning after asking him to excuse her from jury duty because of her maternal responsibilities.

According to court transcripts, Petrucelli asked Pehl Evans who would take care of her kids in the event she “got hit by a Mack truck and went to the hospital.”

“He had this attitude toward me that I was some dumb mom, which is a broader problem in this country,” the Ph.D. from Princeton said. “I felt like I had to defend myself for mothering my children.”

Christa Pehl Evans explores a book with her children from left, Harvey, 5, 15-month-old Sylvia, and 7-year-old Violet. Pehl Evans says she was berated and humiliated by Fresno County Superior Court Judge James Petrucelli during jury duty selection after she asked to be excused to care for her children. JOHN WALKER

When another prospective juror, a pregnant, stay-at-home mom of an 18-month-old, asked to be excused for similar reasons, Petrucelli groused about why these mothers don’t have child care available to them.

But when a man requested the judge dismiss him from jury duty because he needed money from his job to support his family, according to Pehl Evans, Petrucelli sat silently and nodded his head in agreement.

That’s a clear double standard. No two ways about it.

I don’t know Judge Petrucelli. Never spoken to him, never (thankfully) appeared in his courtroom.

His record isn’t exactly spotless. Censured in 2015 for a “get out of jail” phone call he made on behalf on a cigar-smoking buddy who was facing felony domestic abuse charges. Reprimanded in 2007 for making “discourteous, sarcastic or demeaning” comments toward lawyers and court appointees and in 2001 and ‘02 for infringing on lawyers’ rights and raising his voice with county employees.

Yes, there seems to be a pattern here.

In an effort to learn more about Petrucelli, I phoned around to several Fresno-area lawyers and judges. Five agreed to speak with me, but only one agreed to talk on the record with attribution.

Fresno County Superior Court Judge James Petrucelli.

None of the people with whom I spoke said “Petro” (his nickname in the legal community as well as the tag on his personalized license plate) as a bad judge, or questioned his impartiality. One described him as “somewhat blunt” and “plain spoken.” Another said he had “a short fuse.” Another said he had the reputation of giving men preferential treatment.

“I don’t think he has any intention to hurt anybody,” said criminal defense attorney Roger Nuttall, a friend of Petrucelli’s as well as a donor to his election campaigns.

“I’ve never seen him act in an inappropriate way, but I’ve heard of instances where he’s alleged to have been rough on somebody.”

A former judge who knows Petrucelli but did not want his name used provided valuable insight into what judges go through during the jury selection process.

“Judges get frustrated with the people trying to get out of jury duty,” the ex-judge said. “You have to remember they are not in a position to challenge the explanations they are given, and when a whole bunch of people are trying to get out of it, it makes their job more difficult.

“I sense a note of frustration in (Petrucelli’s) comments.”

Judges are reluctant to accept a prospective juror’s explanations for dismissal, the ex-judge added, because as soon as they “have given everyone in the courtroom the magic words, you’ve got 150 people trying to take advantage of it.”

Jury duty is one of our main civic obligations, and no one should be above the law. That said, California has an established criteria of allowable excuses. They range from excessive distance to extreme financial burden to personal care of others, including children, as long as “no comparable substitute care is either available or practical without imposing undue economic hardship.”

With 15-month-old Sylvia on her lap, stay-at-home mom Christa Pehl Evans watches 7-year-old Violet practice a Christmas carol, as Harvey, 5, explores the keys. Pehl Evans says she was berated by Fresno County Superior Court Judge James Petrucelli during jury duty selection after she asked to be excused to care for her children. JOHN WALKER

Is being a stay-at-home mom with homeschooled kids an allowable excuse? That depends on the judge.

“There is no hard-and-fast rule,” my judicial source said. “It’s a judgment call, and every judge is going to look at it a little different.”

That said, I’m bothered by Petrucelli’s comments. They don’t sit well with me. They come across as unnecessarily insensitive, uttered by someone who is accustomed to talking down to people and especially women.

Such talk may have been socially acceptable in 1978, but this is 2018.

Petrucelli has been admonished for this sort of thing before. It sure doesn’t seem like he’s learned his lesson. I say that because when confronted by his own words, Petrucelli at first challenged the female reporter’s authority to question him and then asserted he wasn’t offended by anything he said.

Well, I am. And I sincerely doubt the judge would address me, a 49-year-old male, in such a fashion.

Petrucelli’s term runs through 2022, but most everyone I spoke to for this column told me that he is on the verge of retirement.

Sounds like not a moment too soon.

Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee