The Judicial Persecution Of Jonathan Vanderhagen

It began when Jonathan Vanderhagen petitioned Macomb County (Michigan) Circuit Court Judge Rachel Rancilio for sole custody of his 2-year-old son, Killian, arguing that Killian’s biological mother was unfit to be his son’s  guardian. Judge Rancilio disagreed and the child’s mother retained custody. Not long after the decision,  Killian was dead. Since his son’s death in 2017, Vanderhagen has harshly criticized the Rancilio’s custody ruling on Facebook. 

As a result, he was arrested and charged with a malicious use of telecommunication services , which includes using a telecommunication service with the intention of terrorizing, intimidating, threatening, or harassing someone, in this case, the judge. From Reason:

The case report filled out by Sgt. Jason Conklin of the Macomb County Sheriff’s Office notes that Rancilio was made aware of Vanderhagen’s posts, several of which included screenshots of her own Facebook page and pins on Pinterest. The screenshots are accompanied by captions promising to expose the corruption of the court system and calling Rancilio and Mary Duross, a 14-year veteran Friend of the Court who was involved in the custody case, “shady.”  “At no point does [Vanderhagen] threaten harm or violence towards Rancilio or Duross,” Conklin wrote in the case report.

Apparently some of the “threat” claim comes from the meme above and others like it that Vanderhagen—talented!—has created and posted on Facebook. That shovel! Scary! The caption says, “Dada back to digging [and] you best believe [I’m] gonna dig up all the skeletons in this court’s closet.” “I won’t stop till changes are made, people are held accountable, careers are ended, & these kids get the justice they deserve,” he wrote in another one of his “threatening” Facebook posts.

What’s going on here?

I don’t think its a tough question: what’s going on is a concerted effort  by some Michigan judges of dubious skills and character to take vengeance on a citizen who hasn’t been willing to grovel at the the feet of the Robed Ones. Judges are like that all too often, but this is an unusually ugly example that begs for a serious reckoning with Lady Justice—for the judges.

Vanderhagen was arraigned before the Macomb County District Court on July 11, and released  on a $10,000 bond under the condition that he not engage in direct or third-party contact with Rancilio. Vanderhagen was also prohibited from sending “inadvertent messages by way of Facebook” to Rancilio. To his credit—that order is unconstitutional and a violation of his First Amendment rights—Vanderhagen continued to post on Facebook about his son, his ex-wife, and his case.  Though these were not messages to the judge, the grieving father was nevertheless summoned to appear before District Judge Sebastian Lucido at the end of July to determine whether his bond should be revoked  for “posting messages” about Rancilio.

But a list of exhibits show Facebook posts calling his son a hero, criticisms of his son’s mother, and criticisms of “the system,” none of which directly reference Judge Rancilio, and all of which are constitutionally protected from the kind of arbitrary ban levied in the bond hearing.

The exchange between the judge and  Vanderhagen’s lawyer, Nicholas Somberg, is horrifying:

SOMBERG: Every one of these exhibits are innocuous, are irrelevant, are not threatening, are not harassing or not intimidating in any way whatsoever. And I would make the argument that he can F say the Judge, F the President of the United States. I mean you have the right to say that stuff.

THE COURT: There cannot be anything of a threatening nature. You can’t yell. They used the example, the famous case, you can’t yell fire in a public place or movie theater, something like that. We’re talking about threatening a sitting Circuit Court Judge is the original allegation against Mr. Vanderhagen. When there’s a no contact, it’s no contact directly, indirectly or social media. These are [although] he likes to hint around the fringes of it, in my opinion they are of a threatening nature after the no contact was put in place.

Or something like that? What is this, Ghostbusters II? It sounds like someone appointed Lewis Tully, Rick Moranis’s character, to the bench! (“My guys are still under a judicial mistrangement order… that blue thing I got from her! They could be exposing themselves!” )

It got worse. Somberg  asked Judge Lucido to explain why the other posts were considered threatening towards Rancilio. Lucido told Somberg that the Facebook posts “speak for themselves,” meaning “I have no answer to that, but I’m a judge, so there.” If they spoke for themselves, Officer Conklin would not have found them harmless. See, judge, “res ipsa loquitur” means it’s so obvious no further explanation is necessary.

THE COURT: You can sit there and read every one of them if you want but [they’re] already part of the record.

SOMBERG: I understand that, your Honor, but you just said that you found the exhibits to show that they are threatening in nature. I’m just asking what—

THE COURT: Correct—

SOMBERG: —is threatening about them.

THE COURT: —because [they’re] alluding to Judge Rancilio and I’m not going to sit here and explain it any further. But here’s what I am going to read and what is also put in LEIN. Do not harass, intimidate, beat, molest, wound, stalk, threaten or engage in any other conduct that would place any of the following persons or a child of any of the following person’s in reasonable fear of bodily injury, spouse, former spouse, individual with whom the defendant has a child in common, resident or former resident of the household. Do not assault, harass, intimidate, beat, wound or threaten the following persons, Rachel Rancilio. And in my opinion, he’s violated that.

Judge Lucido then increased Vanderhagen’s bond to $500,000, using an excessive bail amount to  further punish  Vanderhagen for daring to criticize a colleague in public.  Somberg told Reason that he views  the high bond as more intimidation. “He has never threatened anybody, has no criminal history, and is no flight risk. A $500,000 cash bond is what you would expect for a murderer or rapist. I can’t think of any other reason to set such an astronomically high bond other than to intimidate and punish him for his speech,” he said. “We are fighting this case not just for my client but to defend the constitutional rights of all of us.”

That sounds right.

At trial last week, Judge Rancilio testified  that she feared for her life. Rancillo, a single mother of two children, said she was so frightened that she hired a security guard, installed a new home alarm system and wouldn’t let let her children play outside alone. “I thought he was going to kill me and bury me after he was done. I was scared. I was afraid something bad was going to happen to myself or my children.”

In a word, tough. The answer to that is “see a shrink.” Because a judge is hyper-sensitive does not allow her to stomp on the First Amendment. The prosecution, which should not have prosecuted this unethical case,  argued in court that both the volume of the Facebook critiques and the fact that some included included photos of her family members constituted threats. Wrong. If you don’t want photos of your family posted on Facebook by others, don’t post them yourself. The judge doesn’t know how to manage her social media accounts. That’s not Vanderhagen’s fault.

Nor is the fact that she apparently does not have the fortitude to be a judge. This was not feminism’s finest hour. Assistant Macomb Prosecuting Attorney Elizabeth Rittinger told the Macomb Daily, “It is undisputed that Rachel Rancilio felt threatened.”  It is also undisputed that a weenie in robes feeling threatened doesn’t make mere criticism a “true threat.” The Supreme Court, in its 2015 opinion in Elonis v. United States ruled  8-to-1 that to constitute a true threat on social media, the poster has to intend to scare someone.

But Lewis Tully probably never heard of that case, and I bet judge Rancillo hasn’t either.

The system worked a little bit, at least:  jurors deliberated  only26 minutes before Vanderhagen was acquitted and released. Having been a foreman on a jury, I can vouch for the fact that there’s about 15 minutes of paper work and administrative stuff as part of that 26 minutes. This was the equivalent of the jury entering the jury room, walking around the table, and coming back into court.

Somberg said after the verdict,

“I think that Jonathan should continue speaking the truth, I think he should continue researching our elected public officials and telling people what happened to him and warning other people about the court system.”

Yes, and I think there need to be serious consequences to the judges involved in this Kafkaesque story.

And where was the ACLU?


Pointer: William Reese

Facts: Reason, Washington Post

16 thoughts on “The Judicial Persecution Of Jonathan Vanderhagen

  1. Ghostbusters II. You *are* a man of discriminating tastes. *Classic*

    One thought I couldn’t shake: the judge-ette’s opinion regarding what constitutes a threat to a child’s life is drastically different for her own children than it is for someone else’s.

    • Nice point. Really, when you become professionally involved in people’s lives through the justice system where lives are in the balance, you should already have planned security matters. Why doesn’t she consider that there should be the same protectins for the deceased and bereaved? I suspect if the father had been the one accused, there would have been court-based monitoring. You don’t have to be big and muscular to harm a child.

      Once a death hinged after your decision, it would not have to be the grieving parent to be a threat. Her poor handling of the tragedy and place in it just compounds her original handling and highlights that it was a bad decision and not just moral luck. He is not yelling fire and not setting up a mentored practice of the Anarchist’s cookbook. Criticism is always allowed. If people are allowed to threaten and interfere with the elected president, then a minor judge has no right to pull this crap (and her fining policy would bankrupt the Democratic party) Can’t take criticism, (get out of the kitchen) and work in a nice, safe paralegal job. Being a judge requires a lot more intestinal fortitude: lives are, in the end, always at stake.

      • One has to wonder, if this judge is so intimidated by these Facebook posts, what would she do if faced with an actual threat by an actual criminal? It boggles the mind.

        Aside from being a fundamental constitutional right — does Michigan want judges with no intestinal fortitude running their courts? I cannot imagine so.

  2. “And you don’t want us exposing ourselves!”

    I don’t understand where the ACLU is either. Is he white? If so, they must be chalking him up as an angry white man (read: Nationalist). $500, 000 is a huge bail for a few Facebook posts criticizing the handling of the case and bashing his ex-wife.

  3. Perhaps we should offer Judge Rancillo a safe space somewhere and a few Teddy Bears to hug. How in the hell is she going a handle a real threat to her by a criminal (man or women) with a history of violence? She needs to be recalled from the bench.

  4. Biggest takeaway on this story for me: judges should be appointed, not elected. Appointment has produced plenty of lousy judges, but from this layman’s perspective, the process of election produces politicians, not jurists. At least at Circuit Court level, Michigan elects.

    Judge Rancilio – who is easy to google – is young and rather fetching. Her headshots would not be out of place in real estate ads (I still can’t figure out why real estate agents have concluded that their own visages, rather than those of their properties, sells property. But apparently it does).

    It’s one thing to elect idiot legislators – at least in theory, they’re counterbalanced (unless the state puts its thumb on the scale, e.g., California). Elect idiot judges, and you can expect horrendous results.

    • I suspect her election was more about straight ticket voting than actual informed votes cast on her favor. In 2018, Harris County, Texas, turned decidedly blue as a direct and proximate result of straigyt ticket voting, resulting in the loss of a popular county judge (think county mayor) and a whole host of experienced judges. Now, everyone celebrates “diversity” on the benches where the majority of judges elected were African-American women.

      With respect to Judge Rancilio, she appears to value her own position more than the actual role as a judge. I suspect this is not her first Screw Up At The Rodeo. You know they say, “incompetents gotta incompetent.” How dare you question her decision?! Get in line, peasant.


      • As a native Houstonian who watched Ted Poe (The Hanging Judge) and others do both good and NOT good from the bench, this is interesting. Right now it’s a little less diverse because it’s mostly black women. For a LONG time (most of my life), it was all white men. Then there were a few white woman sprinkled in. I haven’t voted in Harris County since the ’90s, but considering the city has only gotten MORE non-white, all I could think was GOOD. I didn’t delve into the records, etc., but I figured the more perspectives we get into the system at all levels, hopefully, the better the system can be.

  5. How long are people going to keep falling for, “I’ve been in fear for my safety! I’ve had to install a security system! I’ve had to hire security! I’ve had death threats! This proves that I’m the good guy!”

    It’s the first thing a PR professional tells you to do when you’ve badly misbehaved and want to play the victim. Especially if you’re a woman. It always works. It’s never sincere. The “death threats” are never made public because they never exist. No one ever asks to see them because to do so would be to doubt the victim. And we must believe all victims; even victims of imaginary threats.

  6. His argument was that his ex-wife was not taking their child to his doctor’s appointments for his preexisting medical condition. She was also not making sure he got his medical care (medicine?). The father wanted custody to ensure his son would maintain his medical treatment. Rancilio refused and gave primary custody to the mother. The mother then moved and continued to miss the doctor’s appointments and not follow the son’s treatments. Vanderhagen went back to court to argue for full custody, and got joint custody (remember, the mother wasn’t caring for the child and the father couldn’t even get joint custody). The child died in the mothers custody. The autopsy result stated Vanderhagen’s son died from a ‘preexisting medical condition’, so nothing to investigate there. Gee, I wonder why he is mad at the judge? Every report of a child dying while under Department of Child Services protection in my state in the last 10 years has been about the child dying in the mother’s custody while the father tried to get custody to save the child.

    Rancilio seems to care a lot for her children’s safety, but not much for anyone elses. This reminds me of the recent CBS special about Austin Judge Julie Kocurek. Kocurek, was shot by Chimene Onyeri. Chimene Onyeri was a man in her court a few weeks earlier. He was caught running a large fraud ring while on probation for running a large fraud ring. She decided to not revoke his probation and let him go. It seems he had murdered a few people and was know for threatening witnesses so they wouldn’t testify against him. Judge Kocurek didn’t think little things like that should result in jail time. Chimene Onyeri’s girlfriend called in a warning to the prosecutor’s office that Onyeri was going to kill judge Kocurek. The DA’s office didn’t feel that warranted any kind of action and ignored it. So, a judge lets dangerous criminal go after he flagrantly violates parole. Criminal’s girlfriend calls in warning that criminal is going to kill judge. Officials ignore the threat. Criminal tries to kill judge. Something has to change. What triumphant change did they institute? They passed a law that if threats are called in against a judge, the judge has to be notified! No concern for the public at large. No concern for letting dangerous criminals out to prey on the public. Just make sure the judges are safe, that is all that matters. If warnings are called against normal people, they are still free to ignore those.

    My state has several judges who are being investigated. One presided over a murder trial knowing that the defense attorney was her biggest campaign contributor as well as other offenses such as not paying taxes or filing tax returns for a decade. She is still presiding over cases.

    I wonder why respect for the law seems to be at an all time low?

  7. I wonder if the tats made a difference? While this is no longer probative (tats are very common), the bias against those who sport them (especially in court) still exists. We have a ‘no visible tattoo’ rule from HR where I work. One guy with ‘sleeve’ ink either wears long sleeve shirts (in Texas summer!) or an arm support over them.

    Local lawyers here in Texas would advise to bathe, get a haircut, and cover the tattoos, even if a bandage or makeup is required. Also leave the phone out of the courtroom, speak only when spoken to, and use manners.

  8. This judge is not competent to exercise the office. I know her all too well. As a result of having the unfortunate fate of being in her court room, I have not seen my children in close to two years…

    Rachel Rancilio may have a law degree, she may have some friends in Macomb County politics and the Macomb County courts but she is not competent to handle a court room, especially in matters concerning a father and his children.

    The death of Killian Vanderhagen is on her head.

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