Warner Makes New Pick for Circuit Court
Alexandria Judge Withdraws
By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 8, 2004; Page B01
RICHMOND, June 7 -- Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) has decided to appoint Lisa B. Kemler, an Alexandria lawyer, to a Circuit Court judgeship that has been vacant for more than a year because of a protracted political dispute between state legislators.
Alexandria Juvenile Court Judge Nolan B. Dawkins, Warner's original choice, told Warner last week that he was withdrawing his name from consideration for the city's open Circuit Court seat.
"I am very disappointed that it's turned out this way," Dawkins said Monday. "It was obvious that I had the support of the community, I am well-qualified and had the support of the [local] bar associations. But it's clear that some in Richmond just did not want me" on the bench.
Judges are subject to election by the General Assembly, and Republicans in the House of Delegates indicated they would continue to oppose the local choice of Dawkins in favor of their candidate.
Dawkins decided to remain in his current position, concerned that if he left, he might be out of a job early next year if not confirmed by the House. Dawkins, 56, has served as a Juvenile Court judge for 10 years and would have been the city's first African American Circuit Court judge.
On Friday, Warner appointed Kemler, 46. She will be sworn in to the interim position this summer. But early next year, Kemler, who will be the city's first female Circuit Court judge, will also have to face the lawmakers who vowed not to confirm Dawkins.
Dawkins's decision ends a long fight over his appointment -- not only between Republican and Democratic legislators, but also within the Republican leadership in the House and Senate.
Democrats in Alexandria had selected Dawkins last summer, citing his long service to the community and credentials as a Juvenile Court judge. They also said he would help diversify the judgeships in the city, which is 22 percent black. Warner was poised to name him as an interim selection, after Alfred D. Swersky stepped down from the position more than a year ago. Dozens of backers, including Alexandria City Council members and prominent leaders of the black community, expressed support for Dawkins.
But several Republican delegates objected, saying that Fairfax lawyer Timothy Battle was a more suitable candidate. As the majority party, they said, they wanted to have their say on all judgeships, as Democrats had done when they were in power.
Virginia is one of only a few states that gives its legislatures sole control over choosing local judges, putting the process under the control of the ruling party. The assembly exercises that power during its annual winter sessions.
Dawkins and his supporters -- including many Republican senators -- have maintained that the local delegation's choice should be confirmed by the assembly.
"Republicans in the House continue to want to hijack this process," said Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria), who fought hard for Dawkins's selection this year. "Lisa Kemler is a qualified, fine candidate. . . . It's very disappointing to see how the Republicans have handled this."
Several GOP delegates said that although Kemler is a fine choice, it's probable that they will continue to block whomever the Democrats choose.
"Not one Democrat who is complaining now ever stood up when we were the minority and said that the system they used was unfair," said Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), who has consistently said that it is his party's responsibility to have direct influence on judicial nominations, particularly in districts such as Alexandria that have Democratic majorities.
Kevin Hall, a spokesman for Warner, said: "Lisa Kemler is a talented trial lawyer, and she is widely respected in the Alexandria legal community" and "will be an excellent addition to the Alexandria Circuit Court."
Kemler said she is pleased that Warner had selected her but would not comment on the politics surrounding the appointment.
A trial lawyer for almost two decades, Kemler has represented high-profile defendants such as Lorena Bobbitt, the Prince William woman who was found not guilty by reason of insanity of slicing off her husband's penis in 1993.
She has also served as a substitute judge on the Juvenile and General District courts in several Northern Virginia jurisdictions.
"This is something I've always aspired to do," she said of the judgeship.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company