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Albemarle County's judge and sheriff have ended their feud. It only cost thousands of dollars.

The recent stand-off between an Albemarle County judge and the sheriff has ended not with a bang but a buck. Nearly 3,000 bucks, that is.

The spat over who has authority over bailiffs in county courtrooms — and more specifically, who can instruct those bailiffs to move courtroom microphones — brought a criminal hearing to a halt last week and left one bailiff with a contempt-of-court charge on his record.

Albemarle County Sheriff Chan Bryant says she ended the impasse simply by ordering two additional microphones.

"The problem has been rectified, and I rectified it," Bryant told The Daily Progress.

Bryant’s solution cost $2,739, according to a county representative. But such a cost may have been less than the toll in human time lost on March 25 when Judge Cheryl Higgins was pursuing and then quizzing Bryant over her bailiffs’ unwillingness to move courtroom microphones.

Inside the Albemarle County Courthouse, a structure where Thomas Jefferson once practiced law, the pair dueled verbally over the microphones. As the impasse persisted, the assembled lawyers, stenographers, clerks and others were stymied in their respective practices.

Higgins said she wanted the bailiffs, who are sheriff’s deputies, to reposition a wireless microphone that amplifies each speaker so that the court reporter could take an accurate transcription. The sheriff and her deputy bailiffs, however, declined that request as falling outside their mission of keeping the courtroom safe and secure.

There was a tense moment when the judge, who holds the power to jail those who don’t comply with her directives, asked a deputy if he really said something outside of court about "not moving f’ing microphones anymore."

That was shortly before the sheriff entered the courtroom. As the slack-jawed assemblage of attorneys and others watched, the two officials stuck to their positions, and the judge raised the issue of contempt. Higgins then put words to action by asking one deputy to move the microphone. He declined, and she cited him for contempt.

Asked for an interview, a clerk delivered Higgins’ response to The Daily Progress: "No, sir."

The sheriff, however, agreed.

In a telephone interview, Bryant told The Daily Progress why she gave the order that her men were not to move the wireless microphone.

"It distracts their attention," said Bryant.

In Virginia, sheriffs are constitutional officers because their election is mandated by Virginia’s constitution. In many localities, including Albemarle County, police departments have been created to handle law enforcement, while sheriffs retain other duties, including prisoner transfer and courtroom security. Bryant contends that such security could be compromised if a bailiff is tasked with moving and adjusting a microphone for each person who talks in court.

"The deputy’s attention is diverted to moving microphones every time somebody speaks as opposed to paying attention to the security of the courtroom," she said.

The day after the showdown, Higgins issued a backdated order that recounted the awkward series of interactions she had with Bryant, who the judge repeatedly referred to as "Sheriff Chan." In her order, Higgins proposed that Albemarle County’s chief financial officer hire a special person to move microphones.

Bryant’s three-microphone solution appears, however, to have mooted the judge’s effort.

"Additional microphones have been installed in the courtroom which satisfied the request," Albemarle County spokeswoman Logan Bogert told The Daily Progress in an email.

Wireless microphones are a fairly new innovation in the courthouse. They weren’t introduced until social-distancing rules during the COVID-19 pandemic briefly turned the courtroom gallery into a jury box. Post-pandemic, the microphones now enable low talkers to practice their placid parley. None of the other courthouses in downtown Charlottesville electronically amplify a speaker’s voice.

During the recent stalemate, the sheriff vowed to pay any fines for any of her men cited for contempt. But while the brouhaha may have ended, it left one man with a record. Albemarle County Circuit Court criminal records now list John Howard, the bailiff who declined to move the microphone in Higgins’ court, as having been fined $50 when found guilty of contempt.

"The judge controls the courtroom," legal analyst Scott Goodman told The Daily Progress. "I think the judge’s power is unlimited in that courtroom to issue orders."

Higgins apparently didn’t utilize all of her powers that day, as Virginia law lets judges penalize contempt with a fine as high as $250 and up to 10 days in jail. Goodman said that a contempt finding can be appealed, but he added there’s a more common outcome in matters of courtroom behavior.

"The deputy could apologize, and the judge could purge the contempt finding," said Goodman.

Neither appears to have happened.


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