Va. Senate standoff raises specter of rocky session

Steve Helber/The Associated Press - Senate Democratic leader, Sen. Richard Saslaw (D-Fairfax), left, answers a question as Republican leader Sen. Thomas Norment (R-James City) reacts during a jan. 24 debate on a resolution relating to the election of judges.

RICHMOND — A partisan battle over judicial appointments left the Virginia Senate at a standstill Tuesday, with members prevented by procedural rules from voting on any legislation or even conducting committee meetings until the matter was resolved.

The House of Delegates and Senate eventually found a way out of the impasse, at least for the next few days, by postponing the matter until Thursday. But Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) indicated that Democrats would continue to flex whatever muscle they had left after this month’s GOP takeover by opposing all new judicial nominations.

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The heated showdown — coming just weeks into the session and over two judicial nominees not considered the least bit controversial — raised concerns that it will be a rocky session for Richmond’s evenly split upper chamber.

“This is a residual consequence of bruised political egos,” said Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment (R-James City), suggesting that Democrats were using “political extortion” to get back at Republicans after they declined to share power in the 20-20 chamber.

The battle began shortly after the Senate started its daily session at noon. Senators were asked to vote on a joint resolution needed to reappoint 47 incumbent judges around the state to new terms and to appoint two new judges. The resolution had just passed in the House.

Democrats voted against allowing the matter to come up for a vote. That not only held up the resolution but threatened to put the Senate into an indefinite state of limbo. The resolution was subject to a continuing joint order, which dictates that no other business may be conducted while it is under consideration.

“We cannot proceed with any further business at any time — tomorrow, next week, next month,” said Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R), who presides over the Senate.

Each party blamed the other for the impasse. Both sides called each other “obstructionists” in impassioned floor speeches.

This was the type of deadlock political observers had feared when the Senate split evenly, with 20 Republicans and 20 Democrats, in November’s elections. The legislative dysfunction and heated rhetoric emerged at a time when Democrats are still angry with the Republicans, who took control of crucial Senate committees this month with help from Bolling’s tie-breaking votes. Democrats, claiming that Bolling lacked authority to vote on organizational matters, had sought a power-sharing agreement.

Democrats still have sway over judicial appointments because Bolling cannot vote on those.

Norment said Democrats were holding the Senate hostage, demanding that members go their way “or we are prepared to shut down the operations of the Senate.”

Saslaw accused Republicans of reneging on a deal to pull the names of two judicial nominees.

“We are no more guilty than they are,” Saslaw said.

The judicial appointments take the form of a joint resolution, one that both the House and Senate must pass. The House passed a resolution that formally created judicial vacancies on benches across the state. That step must be taken before sitting judges can be reappointed to new terms.

The resolution also created two vacancies that would be filled by two new judges, both of whom recently served in the General Assembly: former delegate C.L. “Clay” Athey Jr., a Republican from Warren, and former delegate Clarence E. “Bud” Phillips, a Democrat from Dickenson.

The dispute centered on Athey and Phillips. Democrats said they did not question their fitness for the bench.

“This is not about the qualifications,” Saslaw said

But Democrats said they objected to including them in a resolution primarily meant to reappoint sitting judges. They said the two should be considered with new judges later this month or next.

Until the Senate acted on the joint resolution, both chambers were in limbo and could not conduct any other business, according to the Senate clerk’s office.

The House had, in fact, continued with the rest of its calendar while awaiting the Senate vote. House leaders initially said they were confused about whether they had the authority to carry on or not. The House eventually called a recess until 3 p.m., but continued conducting business when it reconvened at that hour.

As part of that business, the House voted to postpone action on the resolution until Thursday, ending the impasse for the time being.

During a protracted back-and-forth with Norment on the Senate floor, Saslaw acknowledged that Senate Democrats plan, at least for the time being, to oppose any new judicial nominations.

“Does this have to do with judicial selection or going back to bruised feelings about the [Senate committee] organization?” Norment asked.

“I would simply say to the senator that, generally speaking, I don’t get into the motives . . . [behind what Republicans do],” Saslaw replied. “And don’t get into motives of what we do.”

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