Saturday, May 07, 2005
Lawyer's battles: Judge, insurgents
The Virginia Supreme Court will likely decide who will prosecute cases in Floyd County while Gordon Hannett is overseas, and if he will keep his monthly salary.
If Floyd County Circuit Court Judge Ray Grubbs has his way, Hannett will also be out of a job while he is gone. A power struggle between Hannett and the judge will likely require a Virginia Supreme Court ruling to decide who will prosecute cases in the county while Hannett is at war, and if Hannett will keep his $5,300 monthly salary while he is overseas.
Hannett, a member of the Salem-based 7th Brigade of the 89th Division of the Army Reserves, learned Wednesday that he would be called up with his unit on Sunday and sent to Iraq. While there, he will help train the Iraqi National Army infantry.
Hannett is the only prosecutor in the Floyd County office. So on Thursday, Hannett hired Christiansburg attorney Dennis Nagel to prosecute cases part time while he is away. Hannett planned to manage policy decisions by communicating with Nagel by e-mail and phone from Iraq.
As an officer, Hannett said he would be based in an office in Iraq and would have no problem running the office from afar.
"I can write e-mails to Dennis every single day," Hannett said Friday.
But Judge Grubbs has other plans. On Thursday evening, Grubbs held a hearing without notifying Hannett and appointed Stephanie Murray-Shortt, a Floyd attorney, to serve in Hannett's place until Hannett returns.
Citing the Virginia Code, Grubbs said in his order that a prolonged absence by Hannett required him to appoint an acting attorney to serve in Hannett's place until he returns.
Grubbs, through his secretary, would not comment on Friday.
Murray-Shortt was out of town Friday and could not be reached. Her husband, James Shortt, who is also a Floyd County attorney, said the Floyd County Bar Association wanted an attorney from the county to serve as commonwealth's attorney.
Nagel has a private practice in Christiansburg. On Friday morning, when Nagel arrived to be sworn in at the courthouse, the circuit court clerk refused to hold the ceremony. So Hannett swore Nagel in himself in a ceremony in his office.
Hannett said the courthouse struggle has more to do with power and ego than who prosecutes cases while he is gone.
Hannett said he told the judge in April that he planned to hire an assistant prosecutor for the one-man office, because he would likely have to serve in Iraq. At that time, the judge told him he had to choose among Murray-Shortt or two other Floyd County attorneys or face losing his job, Hannett said Friday.
"He said I either had to hire one of those three attorneys as my assistant or he would appoint one of them in my place. And that is what he has done," Hannett said.
By law, judges appoint commonwealth's attorneys for the remainder of a term when the elected office is vacated. (Grubbs appointed Hannett to the job in 2003 when Gino Williams left to be a judge.)
But Hannett said by going to Iraq he is not vacating his position. He said he is simply doing his patriotic duty and questioned Grubbs' patriotism.
"In my mind it shows a lack of patriotism to take a man's job and his source of income from him when he goes off to war," Hannett said.
He is hoping a recent opinion by the attorney general will help him keep his job. On Thursday, the attorney general issued an opinion that a commonwealth's attorney is not required to relinquish his office when involuntarily called to active military duty.
And Hannett would not be the first commonwealth's attorney to rule from afar.
Roanoke Commonwealth's Attorney Donald Caldwell kept his pay and benefits and ran his office when he was called up for active duty for 15 months in 2003 and 2004. Caldwell, however, was stationed in the United States.
Del. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, said he thinks Grubbs overstepped his authority and that Hannett will keep his position.
"I think Judge Grubbs is a good man who usually gets it right," he said. "Everyone misses it once in a while and I think he missed this one."
Hannett has hired Roanoke attorney Chris Kowalczhuk, who said he will take the case to the State Supreme Court next week.
In the meantime, Nagel is ready to take over. On Friday, he started his new part-time job in the office, where he will be paid $48 an hour.
On Wednesday, court will be in session and Hannett will be gone. Hannett said he is not sure who will be in charge of prosecutions.
"It could be Dennis and Stephanie. Could be Dennis. Could be Stephanie. I don't know who will show up," he said.