- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 15, 2014

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) - A Fresno County judge has acknowledged helping an acquaintance accused of spousal abuse get out of jail on his own recognizance without a proper hearing and is willing to accept the consequences as long as he can remain on the bench, his lawyer said.

The California Commission on Judicial Performance announced Tuesday that it had started a formal inquiry into whether Superior Court Judge James Petrucelli’s involvement in the July 2013 felony case constituted official misconduct and conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.

In a notice to the 64-year-old Petrucelli last week, Commission Chairwoman Erica Yew, a judge in Santa Clara County, wrote that her fellow jurist is accused of ordering Fresno County jail officials to immediately release restaurant owner Jay Ghazal without bail or having to complete the usual paperwork.

It said California law holds that domestic abuse suspects can be released on their own recognizance only after a judge holds a scheduled hearing with prosecutors.

Petrucelli called the jail after a close friend, attorney Jonathan Netzer, contacted him seeking advice about bailing out Ghazal, the notice states.

Kathleen Ewins, the lawyer representing Petrucelli in the judicial inquiry, told the Fresno Bee (https://bit.ly/11oGEcR ) that the judge “admits that he made a mistake and is willing to accept discipline short of the loss of his job.”

The three men are all patrons of a cigar shop and members of a cigar club organized by Netzer. After Ghazal was released, they saw each other later that day at a fundraiser where Ghazal spoke to the judge about his upcoming court date and asked for a referral to a lawyer.

“The matter of Mr. Ghazal’s release was not properly before you, and you would have been disqualified had the matter come before you in the ordinary course of judicial business because of your relationship with both Mr. Ghazal and Mr. Netzer,” Yew wrote.

Ghazal has pleaded no contest to two misdemeanor charges of false imprisonment and contempt of court as part of a plea deal in which prosecutors dismissed three felony charges.

Petrucelli told The Bee in an email Tuesday, a day in which his docket included presiding over a domestic violence trial, that he regretted calling the jail on Ghazal’s behalf without knowing the precise nature of the charges and “without fully thinking through the issues.”

The judge, who was first elected to the bench 16 years ago, also said that during his 15 years as a sheriff’s deputy, judges would occasionally call the jail and ask for individuals to be released on their own recognizance, the Bee said.

Petrucelli was reprimanded by the commission in 2007 for being rude to lawyers in his courtroom and treating county employees poorly.

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Information from: The Fresno Bee, https://www.fresnobee.com

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