A dozen or so people sent me this media story over the weekend involving a West Virginia judge who has been accused of pulling a gun in his courtroom, mocking the “man purse” of a Texas lawyer’s ex-CIA private security contractor, and otherwise treating her abusively and unfairly. It was first published in the Daily Beast, and also was published in the WV Record on Friday. Now it’s even made the Daily Mail. This involves West Virginia state court Circuit Court Judge David Hummel, in the small town of New Martinsville, in Wetzel County, West Virginia, who presided over a trial regarding gas royalty payments to landowners back in March, being tried by a Texas corporate attorney, Lauren Varnado. She is apparently the source of the allegations. Despite this going viral in the national news, I’m going to point out something to you that I think they may have overlooked. More on that in a minute.
(ETA: For some reason the Youtube version of the video cut-off the end of the video. Here’s the Facebook version, which has my full video: https://fb.watch/emqkmtitvS/ )
Varnado describes a hostile relationship with the judge after asking him to recuse himself based on a conflict of interest involving the judge’s parents receiving gas royalty payments. She also described a hostile relationship with the local community, requiring professional security. I’m pretty sure this has happened before in West Virginia. Angry locals, armed corporate security, and good ‘ole boy judges. Varnado ended up going to the FBI. And apparently, the Daily Beast. I don’t live in this region in West Virginia, so this is the first I’m hearing of the underlying conflict, or these allegations. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of this judge, and I’m certain that I’ve never appeared before him.
In any event, the Daily Beast reported that Judge Hummel “whipped out his handgun, waved it in the air and left it on the bench with the barrel pointing directly at corporate lawyers who had irritated him.” This is supposed to have occurred on a Saturday, out of the presence of the jury.
At first, Hummel told the Daily Beast that never happened. Then, he told the reporter he kept the gun, a Colt .45, in a secret drawer in his bench. Then, he said he was wearing a holstered gun under his robe during the trial the previous week. But he said it was a long, classic-looking revolver from the Wild West days called a Colt Peacemaker. Then, Hummel told the reporter he did show Varnado a first aid kit.
“But it was casual,” Hummel told the Daily Beast reporter. “I did show her a foiled packet and said this is blood coagulant. We have preparations for active shooter situations.”https://wvrecord.com/stories/628727978-attorney-says-circuit-judge-pointed-gun-at-her-from-bench-during-hearing
The firearm incident from the Saturday hearing occurred after the Texas defense team attempted to remove Judge Hummel from the case over an alleged conflict of interest. According to the Daily Beast article:
[T]he gas company’s lawyers accused the judge of never disclosing that his parents get gas company royalties that may someday pass on to him—sparking questions about a glaring conflict of interest. When the gas company’s lawyers sought to disqualify him, court transcripts show he grew increasingly aggravated at Varnado and her team.
At an April 2021 court hearing in which he was asked about his family’s gas interests, the transcript shows how the judge patronized EQT’s lawyers as he detailed his family tree and dismissed their concerns, ranting about how his cousin “Christy” got mad at him for not recognizing her at a wedding. When the attempt to have higher state courts disqualify him failed, Hummel started the next court hearing in similar fashion.https://www.thedailybeast.com/west-virginia-judge-circuit-judge-david-w-hummel-jr-pulled-a-gun-in-the-courtroom-and-then-it-got-weird
Varnado claims that the firearm was a constant part of the litigation. I’m not opposed to that in theory. But here’s what she said, specifically:
“The first time I saw Judge Hummel with a firearm was at the Huey pretrial conference at the Wetzel County Courthouse on March 1, 2022,” she said in an affidavit. “At the pretrial conference, Judge Hummel wore a black handgun in a holster on his hip with his judicial robe unzipped.”
During the trial, she said Hummel would walk around the courtroom with his robe unzipped and the firearm visible.
“I asked Judge Hummel during a break in trial about his firearm,” Varnado said in the affidavit. “Judge Hummel confirmed that the gun was a Colt .45 handgun. He wore the gun in a holster without exception throughout the trial.”https://wvrecord.com/stories/628727978-attorney-says-circuit-judge-pointed-gun-at-her-from-bench-during-hearing
Why were guns even being discussed in the first place? Apparently the gas royalty trial involved perceived safety threats to the Texas legal team, who says that they hired ex-CIA officers as professional security. However, the judge didn’t allow the security team into the courtroom. Instead, Judge Hummel is alleged to have stood up, opened his robe, pulled his gun out of the holster on his hep and held it in his right hand, stating “I promise you, I’ll take care of them.” It sounds like the Judge called one of the ex-CIA guys, who was wearing a “man purse,” which he called, “such a sissy-ass contraption.” Judge Hummel then said, “Aren’t me and my guns and security enough?” and said, “My guns are bigger than your security’s guns,” pointing the barrel of his pistol towards the Texas attorneys.
Varnado signed an affidavit stating that, “Judge Hummel then set his gun down on the judicial bench and deliberately rotate the firearm (as it laid on the bench) until the barrel of the gun was pointing directly at me.” She alleges that the handgun remained on the bench, pointed at her, for the duration of the hearing. And then some:
The gun stayed there for the rest of the hearing. When the attorneys were directed to negotiate in a private room, they found the handgun still waiting for them when they returned. When lawyers had to approach the judge, the resting gun remained pointed at their faces.https://www.thedailybeast.com/west-virginia-judge-circuit-judge-david-w-hummel-jr-pulled-a-gun-in-the-courtroom-and-then-it-got-weird
One thing about this. In the Daily Mail article, they showed a photo of the inside of this particular courtroom. Here it is is. One thing that caught my attention was that it doesn’t necessarily appear that lawyers in the room would be able to see a gun, or the direction in which it was pointing, if it was sitting on the bench directly in front of the judge. Here’s the photo:
Maybe Varnado was referring to a different table, or perhaps the photo is either the wrong courtroom, or misleading as to the angles involved. It’s also possible that they only saw it when they walked into, or out of, the negotiation room. But in any event, she went to the FBI following the hearing.
Varnado says she contacted the FBI’s Pittsburgh office immediately following the hearing. After that phone call, she made a written report to the FBI via email. The next day, she says she had a second phone call with the FBI. On March 16, she met with the FBI in Pittsburgh.
She says she didn’t report the incident to the state Judicial Investigation Commission or any law enforcement in West Virginia because “we were – and still are – afraid.”https://wvrecord.com/stories/628727978-attorney-says-circuit-judge-pointed-gun-at-her-from-bench-during-hearing
Varnado further alleges that the firearms discussion was not included in the certified transcript of the hearing – that she saw Judge Hummel gesturing to the court reported to go on or off the record, whenever he wanted to keep things out of the transcript. This included any discussion of Varnado’s ex-CIA security detail.
“The whole trial was insane,” she told The Record. “Why does a judge need to exert more power over us than he already can? Why would he need a gun in his courtroom?
“He took the Huey case extremely personally for some reason. I still don’t understand why. There was nothing super controversial about it, but he took it very personally.
“And yes, I am from out of state. I know what that means. I don’t really care if he likes me. I just tried to do the best job I could do that I was hired to do. But a courtroom, for a trial attorney, that is your workplace.
“My heart just breaks for the people who have to endure that every day. They don’t have a choice. They’re the real victims. It isn’t about me. If it’s happening to me, way worse things are happening to people who are pro se or indigent.”https://wvrecord.com/stories/628727978-attorney-says-circuit-judge-pointed-gun-at-her-from-bench-during-hearing
The Daily Beast article noted that Judge Hummel is now under investigation, and that some of the judge’s own staff are corroborating the allegation that the judge displayed a gun:
That judge is now under investigation by the state’s judiciary for violating the profession’s code of conduct, according to three witnesses now sharing information with law enforcement and official communications about the investigation reviewed by The Daily Beast. The judge’s own staff has since told an investigator that the judge did, in fact, display his gun openly during an attorneys-only hearing and boasted about having it in his possession, according to two of those witnesses.https://www.thedailybeast.com/west-virginia-judge-circuit-judge-david-w-hummel-jr-pulled-a-gun-in-the-courtroom-and-then-it-got-weird?
The Daily Beast also reported that, although Judge Hummel said there’s no recording of the incident, that a state investigator has acquired a videotape of the interaction. Does this refer to surveillance footage? Was one of the Texas lawyers surreptitiously videoing what was happening? We’ll find out at some point, if the state judicial disciplinary authorities end up charging or publicly admonishing Judge Hummel.
I don’t know what the truth is here. But I do know that one of the reasons I only litigate civil rights violations in federal court, in West Virginia, is because in the state courts you can sometimes deal with what I call the “welcome stranger tax,” which is a good ‘ole boy type biased judge, who treats you unfairly. I personally experienced this in another faraway county in West Virginia, where the local judge refused to let my client out of jail on a Friday, until I drove back to my office 3 hours away, to prepare the order to release him. I asked to use the judge’s computer to prepare a quick order, and he said no, stating that my client should have hired a local attorney, instead of someone from out of town.
I don’t know if that’s the case here, or if this is being blown out of proportion. What I do know is that the judicial investigators have the capability of getting at the truth. They get to take a sworn statement of the judge regarding the allegations. I presume they’ve already done that. They get to subpoena witnesses. And it sounds like they’ve already obtained some statements, as well as some sort of video footage. I should be able to obtain the investigation report at some point with a public records request.
My conclusion here is that I don’t have one yet. I’m not opposed to a judge carrying, or discussing, or even presenting, firearms in a courtroom. But it’s all in the context. Nobody should ever point firearms at anyone – especially not in the context alleged here. Given everything I’ve learned about judges the past couple of years, I wouldn’t take anything off the table, but let’s wait and see what the investigation concludes before jumping the gun.