A grassroots effort to strip Christopher J. Dumler of his Albemarle County supervisor seat was dealt a fatal blow Friday morning, a stone's throw from the courtroom where he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor sexual battery in January.
One week after presiding over Dumler's four-hour civil trial, county Circuit Judge Cheryl Higgins ruled that she could not order the embattled Democrat out of office under an untested provision of state code cited in a petition calling for his ouster.
"While the court understands the frustration of the petitioners, of having someone on the Board of Supervisors represent them who has been convicted of a crime of a sexual nature, the court is limited to the grounds set forth in the statute," she said.
When Dumler, an attorney by trade, emerged onto the courthouse steps, free of legal woes for the first time in seven months, he was beset by hecklers and protesters carrying blown-up photos of his mug shot.
Higgins "clearly got this one right," he told reporters.
"We put on overwhelming evidence that shows that over the last six to eight months I have been doing my job," he said. "Just because some people are upset with certain things that have happened doesn’t have any ... impact on the performance of my public duties."
The filing that triggered legal action against Dumler was signed by 470 verified voters from his Scottsville District, and relied on Virginia code Section 24.2-233, which lays out three avenues by which a judge may remove an elected official: Conviction of a misdemeanor hate crime or certain misdemeanor drug offenses, or neglect of duty, misuse of office or incompetence.
Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, said Friday that he plans to "take a look" at proposing changes to the section, which he noted had not been substantively revised in more than a decade.
State law calls for any elected official convicted of a felony or a crime requiring a listing on the sex offender registry to resign from office.
Police initially charged Dumler with felony forcible sodomy in October but he pleaded to the lesser charge. He was ordered to serve a 30-day jail sentence, which he completed mostly on weekends between March and May, according to the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail.
Earl Smith, of Keene, who led the petition effort, only needed to collect 372 verified signatures -- 10 percent of the total votes cast in the Scottsville District in the 2011 election Dumler won -- to petition the court for removal.
Smith approached Dumler after the hearing, shook his hand and wished him good luck.
"I support what Judge Higgins says," Smith said Friday. "I don’t support what the protesters are doing. That’s just ridiculous, walking behind [Dumler] yelling 'rapist.' I have never supported that. I think it’s sad."
Special prosecutor Michael Doucette argued last week that Dumler's conviction had led him to refrain from a key vote on a firing range, damaged his ability to communicate with and serve constituents and resulted in his resignation from boards and committees crucial to his effectiveness as a supervisor.
On Friday, Doucette, commonwealth's attorney for Lynchburg, called the law "limited" and said he could not fault Higgins' decision.
"It is odd, though, that, in other words, if you possess pot as a member of some public body and you’re convicted of it, you’re removed from office ... but if you’re convicted of sexual battery, you’re not subject to removal," he said.
Charlottesville-based attorney Scott Goodman said the petition asked Higgins to take an expansive view of neglect that would have had damaging ramifications, citing testimony last week that other members had missed meetings for vacations and golf outings.
"If you apply that standard to [Dumler], you would have to apply it to other board members, as well," said Goodman, who is not involved in the case.
Higgins last week said she needed time to prepare a ruling because it was a precedent-setting case. On Friday, she said Dumler's actions -- visiting the county offices almost daily, responding to constituents' calls and emails and sending out updates -- demonstrated his commitment to serving.
"The evidence clearly shows that the conviction has resulted in a loss of confidence by the public and by the Board of Supervisors, but the court does not find that ... to be the equivalent of neglect of duty," she said.
The decision elicited mixed reactions from Dumler's board colleagues, three of whom testified during his trial last week. Independent Dennis Rooker, an attorney, called the judgment "legally correct."
"If the judge had gone the other way, it would have set a terrible precedent," he said. "If the kind of evidence presented last week were sufficient, public officials across the state of Virginia would be susceptible to removal."
Republican Duane Snow, who called for Dumler's resignation, said he was disappointed but not surprised that Dumler would remain on the board. "I don't feel like I can trust him, but I'm not going to let anything get in my way of doing county business," he said.
Board Chairwoman Ann H. Mallek, a Democrat, once voted against asking for Dumler's resignation and said her colleagues who voted yes had overstepped their role.
"I don't think another supervisor should step in and say what's best for the voters of another district," she said, declining to say whether she supports Dumler's decision to retain his seat. He has stated publicly that he does not plan to seek reelection in 2015.
Both Mallek and Rooker, who also voted against requesting Dumler's resignation, said in February that he should step down.
"The outcome of today’s [decision] does not change the fact that Mr. Dumler pled guilty to sexual battery," said Becky Weybright, executive director of the Sexual Assault Resource Agency in Charlottesville, which has called for Dumler's resignation. "We view sexual battery -- as we do any act of sexual violence -- as a serious crime."
Jamie Morgan, of Charlottesville, a vocal critic of Dumler who attended Friday's protest, said Higgins' decision was symptomatic of a criminal justice system that does not do enough to protect survivors of sexual assault.
"I think I told [Dumler] to burn in hell and I don't want that, I was just angry," she said. "I want him to reform and make the right decisions."