Did judge in McDonnell trial have conflict of interest?

Bob McDonnell 10

Governor Bob McDonnell

By Lynn R. Mitchell

Many have commented that Judge James Spencer, the Federal judge who presided over Bob and Maureen McDonnell’s trial, ruled almost exclusively against the Governor before, during, and after the trial.

Now we learn that in 1997, McDonnell voted against the judge’s wife when she was nominated to the Virginia Supreme Court (see Should McDonnell have asked for a different judge? by Will Houp at WAVY TV-10).

Would that be a huge conflict of interest?

WAVY TV asked the question, “Should McDonnell have asked for a different judge?”

Good question. Reporter Will Houp investigated the matter:

The issue stems from 1997 when Judge Margaret P. Spencer, who recently retired from the Richmond Circuit Court, was close to becoming the first African-American woman elected to the Virginia State Supreme Court. That was until McDonnell, then serving as a member of the House of Delegates, came along with fellow Republicans and defeated her nomination.

Margaret Spencer is the wife of Judge James Spencer, who is the former governor’s trial judge and will sentence him Jan. 6 on 11 corruption counts.

“I was very surprised this didn’t come to light sooner,” said Sonny Stallings, an attorney and former member of the state Senate. “It would really concern me having been in the legislature. Judgeship fights are very personal – not just political.”

Team McDonnell doesn’t think they got a fair, impartial trial back in September. In their motion for a new trial, the defense attorneys wrote there were “numerous legal errors that deprived Mr. McDonnell of a fair trial and allowed the jury to convict him on legally erroneous grounds that would ensnare virtually any public official.

“Jury instructions were legally erroneous because they allowed the jury to convict Mr. McDonnell on an erroneous understanding of ‘official act.’”

Stallings added that the perception with several lawyers is that a lot of rulings went against McDonnell. “Even the close ones did not break his way,” he said.

Were some of the decision in 2014 payback for what happened in 1997 and 1998?

Earlier this week the judge once against ruled against McDonnell as preparations were made for sentencing (see McDonnell’s lawyers say they expect prosecutors to push for ‘substantial prison sentence):

It’s clear Team McDonnell is expecting the worse. The former governor could face 12 years in prison. His attorneys have filed a motion asking James Spencer for permission to exceed a 30-page limit on McDonnell’s sentencing memorandum. They asked for that because they think the government will ask for a substantial prison sentence.

Conflict of interest? Grudge from the past?

Interestingly, on Wednesday the judge unexpectedly reversed his decision and allowed the McDonnell team to file 20 extra pages for a total of 50 (see Judge allows extra pages for former Gov. Bob McDonnell’s sentencing memo by Frank Green, Richmond Times-Dispatch).

Update: Bearing Drift asks, “Does Judge Spencer have an axe to grind with Bob McDonnell? (Answer: yes.)” and concludes:

Folks, I gotta say… this is pretty damn disturbing that only now this is coming to light.  Naturally, before and during the trial the McDonnell team wouldn’t have wanted to play this card — hang tight and expect a fair trial.  Yet given the jury instructions which were deemed restrictive by many observers, the last minute pulling of a juror who indicated he could not bring himself to convict the McDonnells, and the exceptionally low bar set for conviction… and now rumors of some incredibly punitive sentencing based on what amounts to a handful of vitamin pills?

Something is not right.


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4 thoughts on “Did judge in McDonnell trial have conflict of interest?

  1. […]  Lynn Mitchell piles on… and the scores of Facebook comments illustrate that there’s some fairly broad sentiment that […]

    • Dr zubowsky says:

      Attended 25 percent trial and tried to keep open mind on justice but saw a conviction in the eyes of the court from the onset.

  2. […] in Verona, Virginia – Sabato: ‘This is not a good development for Mark Warner’ – Did judge in McDonnell trial have conflict of interest? – Kay Coles James for RPV chairman: A visionary for the future of the […]

  3. Aaron Harwood says:

    Considering that the author is a Republican, it is no wonder that this article is written with the bias that it has against the judge.

    1. If the attorneys for Bob McDonnell felt that the judge would be biased against their client, they should have asked the judge to recuse himself from the trial of McDonnell. The fact that they didn’t, is on them and not the judge.

    2. A lot of what is considered by the attorneys for McDonnell to be errors by the trial judge in his instructions to the jury are subjective. Of course McDonnell’s attorneys feel that the judge made errors in his instructions to the jury because those instructions went against their client’s interests in this trial. It doesn’t, however, mean that the judge did, in fact, err. The prosecutors in the case may feel that the judge didn’t go far enough in his instructions. But then, their opinion is also subjective.

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