Substitute Judge James F. D’Alton Jr. of Virginia’s 11th Judicial Circuit was remembered Monday as a tough but kindhearted jurist who insisted on civility and professionalism in the courtroom but kept his door open to help others when off the bench.
“He knew the law, he applied the law fairly, he didn’t play any favorites,” said Petersburg Commonwealth’s Attorney Cheryl Wilson, who had known Mr. D’Alton since she arrived in Petersburg in 1991. “You knew what to expect when you came into his courtroom. You need to be professional, you need to be prepared and ready to go. So it’s a great loss. He was a good man with a good heart. Off the bench, he was cheerful and smiling and very, very outgoing.”
Mr. D’Alton, who retired in February 2014 but who still occasionally sat on the bench as a substitute, was found dead Friday about 8:45 p.m. after police and emergency medical personnel responded to his home in the 1700 block of Westover Avenue in Petersburg, authorities said.
The state medical examiner’s office on Monday said he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was seven days shy of his 76th birthday.
“I am totally devastated,” said retired Judge Pamela Baskervill, who worked closely with Mr. D’Alton in Petersburg before both retired months apart in 2014. “We had a wonderful and very close working relationship with a respect for each other’s strengths. He was a fair man who kept his focus on what was important. One of the things I admired most about him was his independence; he rendered decisions he thought were right, taking seriously his duty to apply the law to the facts to achieve justice without regard to outside factors.”
Baskervill said Mr. D’Alton cared deeply about Petersburg and committed himself to serving the city’s courts for much of his career.
“What I will miss the most, however, is his great and freely given smile and his abilities to find humor and remember details that enabled him to tell an engaging story about almost any situation,” Baskervill said. “His passing is not only a personal loss but also a great loss to the city of Petersburg, the legal community and the court system.”
Wilson said Mr. D’Alton was one of the first judges she appeared before as a prosecutor, and he taught her a great deal.
“Even after cases were done, the prosecution and defense would be there after court, and once everything was all over with, he would tell us why he ruled the way he did,” Wilson said. “He would explain, next time you have this type of charge, maybe you should do this. He was always teaching.”
Wilson also said Mr. D’Alton expected attorneys to be prepared when they entered his courtroom and that he was tough but fair.
The judge exhibited “tough love,” she said. “He wasn’t going to be easy on you; he wanted you to do your job.”
Former Petersburg Circuit Court Clerk Benjamin Scott, who worked with Mr. D’Alton for 19 years, said the judge was tough and a stickler for detail but also upbeat, positive and generous with his time. He had an open-door policy and “would discuss anything that you wanted to discuss with him. He was a major problem solver.”
“One of the things that I liked about him was that he always answered your questions the best he could, no matter what they were,” said Scott, who was the city’s elected clerk from 1993 to 2011 and still serves as a court liaison.
The judge was “old-school to the maximum” and initially didn’t take a shine to all the new technology, Scott recalled. Mr. D’Alton managed to weather the process of transitioning from manual procedures to electronic automation, “but he was not very happy about it.”
And Mr. D’Alton wasn’t too keen on the idea of using a personal computer for work. So one weekend, Scott and his staff made the first move by installing a PC in his office. It was equipped with a right-handed mouse. But the judge was left-handed, and Scott didn’t have a left-handed mouse. “So he was not very happy.”
When the judge went to lunch that day, Scott and his colleagues “tricked him into believing we got him a left-handed mouse. But all we did is take the right-handed mouse and move it to the left side. And he was clicking away with right-handed mouse on the left side of his desk.”
Scott said that became a favorite joke. “He and I would laugh about that all the time,” he said.
The judge was preparing to move from his current home in Petersburg to a downsized residence in Richmond, Scott said.
Shalva Braxton, Petersburg’s current circuit court clerk, said she got to know Mr. D’Alton well by recording his decisions as his clerk in the courtroom. “He was my judge; I’m going to miss him terribly,” she said.
Mr. D’Alton last sat on the bench for a criminal jury trial on July 23-24 and was scheduled to hear another criminal case on Oct. 1, Braxton said.
Former Petersburg Commonwealth’s Attorney Cassandra Conover, who stepped down in 2017 after serving for 26 years as the city’s chief prosecutor, said Mr. D’Alton was her mentor and assisted her professionally after she arrived as an assistant prosecutor in 1989.
“His goal was to make sure that there was justice in his courtroom — no mess,” Conover said. “And that the rights of the accused were protected, as well as the rights of the commonwealth. And he just paid very particular attention to how the attorneys addressed each other as well — civility. He was just hands-on, the ultimate professional. And he made everybody step their game up. You could not come into his courtroom and not be prepared.”
A memorial service has been set for Friday at 11 a.m. at Christ & Grace Episcopal Church at 1545 S. Sycamore St. in Petersburg, according to an obituary notice.