RICHMOND -- The Virginia General Assembly is altering how the state's 400 judges are reappointed, hoping to quell lawmakers' yearly disputes about which justices should be reconfirmed.
The new rules require that during their terms, judges submit to three evaluations by lawyers, jurors and retired judges. Written questionnaires will ask participants about the judges' demeanor on the bench, the quality of their explanations of opinions and their "professional behavior," among other criteria.
The "performance evaluations" system is one of the biggest changes in the history of the judiciary's reappointment process. It calls for every judge to be critiqued, including those on the Virginia Supreme Court.
Part of the goal is for judges to get direct feedback on their conduct, lawmakers and judges said. In addition, several legislators said, the assembly will be able to get "objective" information about a justice's professional conduct and legal acumen over time.
Judges in Virginia serve six-, eight- or 12-year terms, depending on the bench. The only evaluation most judges receive is when their term is about to expire and they are up for review by the General Assembly. Virginia is one of only two states in which only lawmakers select and reappoint judges.
"We've always had to deal with controversies during reappointment, and usually all we had to make a decision was anecdotal evidence," said Del. Robert F. McDonnell (R-Virginia Beach), a candidate for attorney general. "That's not fair to the judge and that's not fair to the General Assembly."
As chairman of the House's Courts of Justice Committee, McDonnell oversaw the development of the new program.
Some lawmakers and judges said the reappointment process needed to change to help protect judges from partisan scrutiny into their decisions.
The vast majority of judges are confirmed annually with little commotion. But over the past five years, Republicans legislators have grilled some judges from predominantly Democratic jurisdictions about their views on the death penalty, sexual orientation and abortion.
In 2002, Republican lawmakers intensively questioned Rosemarie Annunziata, who is retired from the Court of Appeals, was questioned intensively by Republican lawmakers in 2002 about her opinion in a case involving a lesbian relationship.
Four years ago, legislators challenged then-Circuit Court Judge Alfred D. Swersky of Alexandria over a decision allowing the city to ban guns in public buildings.
Hampton Circuit Court Judge William C. Andrews III has been unable to win reconfirmation because one Republican lawmaker is upset about his handling of DUI cases.
Some Democratic lawmakers said that they were unsure whether the new process will reduce partisan challenges.
"I'm a bit skeptical because some of the same people who are championing this are the ones who made a mockery out of the judicial reappointment process in the first place," said Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and a member of the Courts of Justice Committee that has some power to reappoint judges.