CHARLESTON -- A state Bar committee has vindicated two men falsely accused of illegally practicing law by an eastern Panhandle judge.
The complaints of Berkeley Family Law Judge Sally Jackson, family law judge in the 24th Family Law Circuit's 2nd Division, against a Hampshire County man and a Virginia mediator were without substance, the committee ruled last month before dismissing her accusations.
Asked to comment on the committee's rebuke, Jackson said she believed she was ethically prohibited from speaking about it.
After being told there was no such prohibition, Jackson said, "I really don't want to comment on it."
One of Jackson's targets, prison guard and anti-divorce activist Fred Schermerhorn of Springfield, said Jackson was merely trying to use her clout to suppress public criticism.
"I'm glad they saw through Judge Sally Jackson," Schermerhorn said. "The only real reason she filed this complaint was to intimidate me and the group."
According to minutes adopted during its July 7 meeting, Jackson lodged her complaints with the Committee in April against Fred Schermerhorn of Springfield and Philip M. Mulford, a mediator in northern Virginia.
When contacted by The West Virginia Record concerning the Committee's decision on Jackson's complaints following its meeting, committee chairman Ned Rose referred questions to Anita Casey, the Bar's executive director.
Though the Committee found no substance to the complaint against Mulford, the Committee would be issuing a warning to Schermerhorn about being careful not to cross the line between political advocacy and rendering legal advice, Casey said.
The Bar, Casey said, would be notifying both Schermerhorn and Mulford formally by letter sometime this month of the Committee's decision dismissing Jackson's complaints.
A form of intimidation
Since he was first informed on June 30 one had been filed against him, Schermerhorn said he has not been provided the basis of the complaint. However, he strongly suspects it results from a letter-to-the- editor he wrote that was published in the Jan. 10 issue of The Journal in Martinsburg.
Titled "Divorcing? Call MAWAD", Schermerhorn's letter encouraged anyone with children going through a divorce to contact Men and Women Against Discrimination, a Vienna-based children's advocacy group, for advice in dealing with the court system. A federal prison guard by profession, Schermerhorn serves as MAWAD's Region III coordinator on a voluntary basis.
In his reply to Jackson's complaint, Schermerhorn said, "I do accept responsibility and apologize for any misconception of the letter I wrote to the editor" admitting that the "paragraph of concerning was poorly worded." The "advice" being "offered" was for organizational members, like himself, who've been through a divorce to give those going through or considering a divorce "better understanding, knowledge of the laws ... while consulting with their attorney over their divorce or custody/visitation issues."
Any "advice" he has rendered, Schermerhorn said, came with the disclaimer that he was not an attorney. Instead, the advice was friendly so as to enable the recipient to think clearly throughout a divorce proceeding.
Also in his reply, Schermerhorn said the complaint was an attempt by Jackson to silence him from speaking out about problems in the family court system. Since The Journal published a letter-to-the-editor on Jan. 20 she wrote in rebuttal to his letter-to-the-editor, Schermerhorn said he was bewildered she would accuse him of practicing law without a license.
"I would like it to be noted that Judge Jackson and myself have previously had conflict in our beliefs of a presumptive 50/50 shared parenting as well as wording regarding the negative effects that a divorce have on children," Schermerhorn said in is reply.
Following the Committee's decision, Schermerhorn remained adamant Jackson's complaint was an attempt to suppress his First Amendment rights. While he said he may choose his words a little more carefully in future letters-to-the-editor, Schermerhorn said the ordeal has only strengthened his resolve to call-out injustices in the family court system.
"It's going to make me fight harder," he said.
Doing everyone a favor
When contacted about the Committee's decision, Mulford declined to comment. However, prior to the decision, Mulford released a prepared statement via e-mail in which he, like Schermerhorn, was puzzled as to why he was being targeted by Jackson.
In his statement, Mulford said he does "not solicit business in nor conduct business in West Virginia." Instead, "[b]y reputation, I was contacted by clients who chose to travel to Virginia to use my mediation services to resolve the issues of their divorce in an amicable and constructive manner."
Once the individuals became his clients, Mulford said as is "ethical duty as a Virginia certified mediator, I informed my clients before we started, during the mediation and at its conclusion that I was not their attorney ..." Not only did he instruct them that he "could not give them legal advice," but he also told them "that they should seek legal advice from an attorney license to practice law in their state before signing their agreement."
"I am a mediator," Mulford added. "Mediation is not the practice of law."
According to his Web site, Mulford operates Mulford Mediation Services with offices in Warrenton and Fairfax, Va. A former attorney, Mulford quit the practice of law 1990 to become a full-time mediator.
Three years later, Mulford says he was among the first to receive certification by the Virginia Supreme Court as a mediator. A check with the Court shows Mulford's certification is active, and has remained active since then.
According to his Web site, Mulford's emphasis is in divorce mediation.
Though he did not offer any specifics, Mulford said both his clients and Jackson expressed no concerns with his services.
"My clients were extremely pleased with my mediation services and with the fact that mediation gave them control over all their decisions and the outcome; an outcome that included their creation of a positive co-parenting arrangement for their children and a mutually acceptable plan for the division of their property," he said.
"The West Virginia Family Court accepted and approved my clients' mediated agreement."
Furthermore, Mulford said the service he provided did taxpayers a favor.
"I believe mediation is a positive aid to the public and to the judicial system," he said. "Every judicial system in the country I know of benefits from and supports the efforts of mediators."
"By using mediation," he added, "my clients removed themselves from requiring the West Virginia court system to make decisions for them freeing up valuable time for judges and staff to address the needs of other West Virginia citizens."