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Fourth Circuit weighs if councilwoman’s psychotic episode was grounds for removal

The councilwoman made false reports, accused strangers of being felons and ripped a face mask off a police officer in a series of incidents in 2021.

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — The Fourth Circuit heard arguments Tuesday about whether a city councilwoman's misconduct during a psychotic episode, including assaulting a police officer, was reason enough to remove her from office. 

Angelia Nikole James served as a councilwoman for Monroe, North Carolina, a small city southeast of Charlotte. According to her brief, on Sept. 9, 2021, she engaged in a series of strange behaviors.

"James woke up believing God was telling her to buy a nearby house that was already under contract," lawyers wrote in the brief. "James spent much of the day attempting to view and potentially make an offer on the house —her conduct led her to argue with her husband. James went to the Fairfield Inn to avoid that argument." 

According to her brief, James began questioning other people at the hotel because God told her there were felons in her midst. Staff called the police, who James began arguing with. She threatened to fire the officers despite not having the authority to hire or fire public employees. 

James went to the hospital late that day after having symptoms of a panic attack. When a police officer tried to move the councilwoman to a private room at the hospital, she resisted and tore off the officer's face mask.

Later that month, the Council voted to censure James after she told journalists that police were lying about what happened.

The Council eventually removed James in early 2022 following an amotion hearing which found she engaged in misconduct related to the duties of her office and that she violated the city charter and code of ethics by assaulting an officer and making false reports to the police. 

James sued the city and asked for an injunction to enjoin enforcement of the removal vote. Her attorney argued that the code of ethics was unconstitutionally vague and that the Council retaliated against her for protected activities when citing her critical statements to the press or police as grounds to begin removal proceedings. The lower court disagreed, finding James unlikely to succeed on the merits. 

"Plaintiff has not made a clear showing that she would not have been removed but for her false statements as opposed to assault and battery on a police officer," the lower court judge stated in his opinion

James' attorney, Bo Caudill of Villmer Caudill, told the three-judge Fourth Circuit panel that her misconduct on the day in question was outside the scope of her role as a councilwoman.

"It is simply not part of the duties of a City Council member's office to interact physically with police officers," Caudill said. "An assault may be criminal; it may give rise to civil liability, but it has nothing to do with her office." 

Attorney Robert E. Hagen disagreed, arguing that James's role emboldened her to threaten and assault the police officers. 

"All of this conduct took place while James was wielding her purported 'authority' as a councilmember," the city's legal team wrote in its brief

U.S. Circuit Judge Steve Agee, appointed by George W. Bush, seemed to agree with the city, pointing to other elected officials' impeachments due to criminal activity.

"So if she robbed a bank or rode through town and shot several people gratuitously, she still gets to be on City Council?" Agee asked Caudill. 

 U.S. Circuit Judge James Andrew Wynn, a Barack Obama appointee, attempted to cut through the legal jargon and asked a fundamental question. 

"There is evidence here that the district court found that she assaulted an officer," Wynn said. "Why is that not sufficient alone to justify her removal from office?" 

Caudill conceded that the assault may be enough to remove an official but that the city instead relied upon vague rules from the code of ethics and on retaliatory motives for James speaking critically to the press rather than the assault to justify her removal. 

Wynn said that since circuit court rulings take several months and James' term in office would have ended in December anyway, her request for an injunction may be moot. 

U.S. Circuit Judge Stephanie Thacker, an Obama appointee, completed the panel. Attorneys representing the city did not respond to requests for comment.  

Categories / Appeals, Briefs, Courts, Law, Politics

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