James Petrucelli is concluding 20 years on the bench a few months earlier than expected.

The judge, who first won election to the Fresno County bench in 1998, is retiring. On Wednesday (Jan. 2), Gov. Jerry Brown announced Petrucelli’s successor, current court commissioner Heather Mardel Jones.

“I don’t want to leave my court shorthanded. (The Fresno judiciary) has not been a big priority in the state budget.” Judge James Petrucelli

She officially takes the seat Friday (Jan. 4).

Originally scheduled to retire in February, Petrucelli says timing his departure three days before Brown himself leaves office, is no coincidence.  He had more faith in Brown making the selection than the governor’s successor, Gavin Newsom.

“I don’t want to leave my court shorthanded. (The Fresno judiciary) has not been a big priority in the state budget,” Petrucelli tells GV Wire.

A Promotion for Jones

Heather Mardel Jones

Jones, 41, will move up from a commissioner seat that she’s held since 2014 to a full judgeship.

“Having been born and raised in the Valley, I am honored and grateful to be given the opportunity to continue to serve the Fresno County community in my new role,” Jones said.

She received her undergraduate degree at Fresno State and went to law school at Santa Clara University.

Her career has seen stops as an attorney for the governor’s office, Santa Clara County Superior Court, Supreme Court of California, and the Santa Cruz County District Attorney’s office before returning to Fresno in private practice at Dowling, Aaron and Keeler.

From there, she worked as an assistant U.S. attorney in Fresno, before moving on to the Fresno County court.

Petrucelli praised his successor.

“I’ve worked with her for a number of years. I’m very proud of her,” he said.

Jones, a Democrat, will fulfill the remainder of Petrucelli’s six-year term through 2022.

Her husband, Sam Dalesandro, is also a Fresno County Superior Court commissioner.

Brown has now appointed eight of the 44 current judges on the Fresno County Superior Court.

Petrucelli’s Controversies

Petrucelli became embroiled in several controversies during his time on the bench.

“My responsibility is to make sure people serve on juries. No one wants to show up at jury duty. That’s a sad thing.” Judge James Petrucelli

Last month, The Fresno Bee reported on a female potential juror offended by some of Petrucelli’s questioning. She said it belittled her as a mother.

The woman, stay-at-home mom Christa Pehl Evans, said she felt bullied by Petrucelli’s line of inquiry regarding her method of childcare.

Petrucelli asked her who would take her of her children if she wasn’t available.

“He had this attitude toward me that I was some dumb mom, which is a broader problem in this country,” Pehl Evans told The Bee.

Petrucelli tells GV Wire that he was just doing his job.

“My responsibility is to make sure people serve on juries,” he said. “No one wants to show up at jury duty. That’s a sad thing.”

Petrucelli said people took his side, commenting on talk radio and Facebook.

“When a judge does their job and takes political pressure because of that, it is wrong,” he said.

Disciplined Before

Petrucelli has been disciplined four times, including a 2015 incident when he ordered the jail to release a friend facing domestic violence allegations.

The Commission on Judicial Performance censured Petrucelli for that incident, saying he “engaged in serious misconduct involving the misuse of judicial office, conduct that reflects poorly on the impartiality and integrity of the judiciary.”

Petrucelli’s Future

Petrucelli, 69, looks forward to spending more time with his wife Toby.

“I want to enjoy life and travel,” he said.

With 45 years in the legal field, including time as a Fresno County Sheriff’s deputy, Petrucelli speculated he may want to get into radio to talk about his experience. But nothing is definitive for now.

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