I posted a video about a month ago titled, “WV Judge Pulls Gun . . . Then it Gets Weird.” This was about West Virginia Circuit Court Judge David Hummel. Here’s the first video:
That video involved recent allegations from a lawyer that a judge had pulled out a gun in the courtroom, while on the bench during a hearing, displaying it and setting it on the bench, pointed in the direction of a lawyer who ultimately complained, sparking investigations, media reports and threats of a lawsuit. There’s been a few updates in the reporting since the video. There was insinuation that video footage existed in this case. So now that’s been confirmed, and some footage has been released pursuant to a FOIA, and I have it. And I’ll show it to you. But there’s been a few other updates as well.
In their August 18 story, the Daily Beast reported that they obtained the video, which they previously hinted existed, and that it confirms via the Court’s surveillance footage, that Judge Hummel indeed displayed a pistol in his courtroom in Wetzel County, West Virginia during a hearing on March 12.
This was a hearing involving controversial litigation pertaining to gas and oil rights. The case pitted gas and oil companies – and their Texas lawyers – against local landowners.
In their original July 16 story, the Beast alleged that Judge Hummel “whipped out his handgun, waved it in the air, and left it on the bench with the barrel pointing directly at the corporate lawyers who had irritated him.” The allegations had been provided to them by Lauren Varnado, the Texas lawyer who had been standing at the podium when the incident occurred.
According to the Beast reporter, this is Judge Hummel’s initial phone response to these allegations:
“There is no incident… I absolutely, categorically deny I had a gun that day in the courtroom,” he said. “It was just me and the attorneys. I had no reason to have a firearm that day… I’ve never shown a gun in my courtroom to anybody. I don’t want them to know that I have it. I do not display my firearm at any time during trial.”
Then, the reporter wrote, minutes later, the judge called back and said he now recalled having a holstered gun on him beneath his robe during the trial the previous week. He maintained however, that it never ever came out of the holster during the trial.
Then the judge called back a third time, now acknowledging that he showed something to the attorneys that day in the courtroom, but that it wasn’t a gun. He claimed it was a “small, red first aid kit.”
The local prosecuting attorney, Timothy Haught, has already responded to the existence of the footage. He stated in a letter to the complaining attorney that he has reviewed the video and that he sees no criminal wrongdoing. “What I saw on the video tape was Judge Hummel displaying his firearm for a few seconds. It did not appear to me that he pointed his firearm at [the complaining lawyer] or threatened [the complaining lawyer] with the same….”
The prosecuting attorney, at the very least, has represented that he has concluded that a gun was displayed by the judge in the courtroom. This contradicts the judge’s statements to the reporter, assuming he made them.
The complaining attorney is Texas lawyer, Lauren Varnado, who represents the oil company. In a follow up letter to Varnado, the prosecutor further remarked that he found nothing that constitutes a violation of West Virginia’s Criminal Code” and that he didn’t see, or hear, a threat, nor did he observe the judge directly point the firearm at Varnado.
Let’s take a look at the actual surveillance footage released by the Daily Beast, and see for ourselves. In the video, which incorrectly displays the local time an hour ahead, Judge Hummel is seen starting the court session around 9 a.m. One minute into the hearing, he is seen briefly waving it in the air as he speaks to the lawyers.
Remember, Judge Hummel, according to the original story, repeatedly told the Daily Beast “it never happened.” They said that when reached by phone, “he initially professed shock at the allegations.”
The footage corroborates the complaining attorney’s initial allegations to some extent. It shows him pull out the gun and wave it around for a second, and then set it on the bench. Is it then pointed in the direction of the attorney? It’s hard to tell from the video. But it doesn’t look like it to me – at least not in this segment of video. To the extent that the judge has indeed denied displaying the gun, the footage appears to completely contradict his recollection of the events.
Whether or not a crime was committed by the judge, judicial ethics violations may have been committed, and an investigation by the judicial disciplinary authorities is ongoing. The Daily Beast quoted Rutgers law school professor Ronald Chen, who also criticized the local prosecutor for “trying to run interference for the judge.”
“Frankly, whether what he did would have satisfied the criminal definition of ‘brandishing’ or not seems to be besides the point… to make contact with a potential witness but one who has not complained—and essentially try to wave her off does not seem to be appropriate.” “
After the first story was published, Lauren Varnado received a letter from attorneys representing the judge that suggested he might be suing her personally for speaking out about what happened. They’ve issued a cease and desist letter, but to my knowledge, no lawsuit has been filed.
The West Virginia Record has reported on other issues surrounding Judge Hummel which have come to light, including him accusing children of lying in a neglect case, as well as allegations he might have violated state law in personally obtaining oil and gas interests.
In a recent State Supreme Court opinion, Hummel was chastised by the Court for improper behavior by conducting interviews of children, wherein he accused a 7 year old of lying, reducing the child to tears, and then appears to have coerced an even younger child to implicate the parent in a plot to fabricate allegations of abuse.
In another recent story, it was reported that Judge Hummel had obtained oil and gas interests while serving as a court official. State law expressly prohibits court officials from obtaining right to minerals from tax deeds. Moreover, he then presided over the oil and gas dispute case involving Varnado, in which he apparently failed to disclose the interests, and also failed to recuse himself.
The judicial disciplinary investigation is ongoing, and I have no doubt there will be another update to come. Legitimacy is the currency of the courts. Setting aside the issues of whether prosecutors are going to criminally charge their fellow elected officials, evidence that a sitting judge has lied about allegations of misconduct, call into questions thousands of pending and former court cases involving that judge. This needs to be resolved. We’ll just have to wait and see the results of the pending judicial disciplinary investigation.