Judge used powers to squelch criticism of family law matters, complaint alleges

By Lawrence Smith | Jan 2, 2009

CHARLESTON – Alleging an unlawful practice of law complaint filed against him earlier this year was a ruse to silence his criticism of the state's family law system, a Hampshire County man has filed an ethics complaint against an eastern panhandle judge for abusing her authority.

On Dec. 18, Fred Schermerhorn filed a complaint against Judge Sally G. Jackson with the Judicial Investigation Commission. An arm of the state Supreme Court, the Commission investigates complaints against judicial officials, including judges.

In his complaint, Schermerhorn, of Springfield, alleges Jackson, who serves as a family law judge in the 24th Family Law Circuit in Berkeley and Jefferson counties, abused her authority when she filed a frivolous complaint against him earlier this year with the state Bar's Unlawful Practice of Law Committee. The complaint came following a letter-to-the-editor he wrote last year encouraging anyone going through a divorce to contact Men and Women Against Discrimination, the Vienna-based children's advocacy group, for which Schermerhorn serves as the Region III director.

Titled "Divorcing? Call MAWAD", and published in the Jan. 10, 2008 edition of The Martinsburg Journal, the letter, Schermerhorn said, was an attempt to inform readers about the "unfairness of our family court system" specifically how Chapter 48 of the West Virginia Code is "worded to remove one of the parents out of a childs [sic] life in a significant manner." In the letter, Schermerhorn said did he "personally attack Judge Jackson, her specific court, or any of her rulings."

Regardless, Jackson wrote a rebuttal to his Jan 10 letter that was published in The Journal's Jan. 20 edition. Believing that to be the end of the discussion, Schermerhorn was shocked when in June he learned she filed her unlawful practice complaint against him.

According to the minutes of the Committee's July 7 meeting, Jackson lodged her complaint against Schermerhorn in April. In addition to Schermerhorn, Jackson filed a complaint against Philip M. Mulford, a Warrenton, Va-based mediator who specializes in resolving divorce cases.

In a response submitted via e-mail to The West Virginia Record seeking comment on Jackson's complaint, Mulford said he too was shocked to learn of it since he always informs all his clients he's not an attorney, and that nobody, including Jackson, expressed any concerns with his involvement in resolving the divorce. At its Oct. 10 meeting, the Committee dismissed Jackson's complaints against Mulford and Schermerhorn, but cautioned Schermerhorn to be more careful about his choice of words in future letters-to-the-editor.

Nevertheless, Schermerhorn maintains Jackson knew full well that any "advice" he rendered was political, and not legal. Because he has written numerous letters-to-the-editor during the last several years critical of the family law system, Schermerhorn says Jackson finally got feed-up, and attempted to silence him and possibly others.

"It is my understanding and personal opinion that Judge Jackson is abusing her official position and intimidating citizens into silence on issues, opinions, and facts that she does not personally agree with," Schermerhorn said in his complaint. "I feel Judge Jackson used her abusive powers, while acting in her official capacity to intimidate me into silence which constitutes a violation of my United States Constitutional Right under the First Amendment."
When contacted, Jackson declined to comment on Schermerhorn's complaint since she had yet to see it.

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