Bickering in Va. General Assembly Leaves Judicial Posts Open

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 11, 2008

RICHMOND -- The task of selecting judges for Virginia's courts led to an unprecedented level of squabbling this year in the General Assembly, dividing legislators by political party, chamber and geography.

Virginia and South Carolina are the only states with legislatures that pick their judges, which sometimes leads to conflicts such as those in Virginia, where the legislative session was filled with one impasse after another over the appointments. On many days, all other business ground to a halt.

Del. David B. Albo, a Fairfax County Republican and chairman of the House Courts of Justice Committee, which assists with judicial appointments, called this year's selection process a "total disaster."

The General Assembly completed its two-month session in March without filling three dozen judicial vacancies. Legislators returned for one day in April, working late into the night to fill some of the openings.

Still, a dozen seats were left open, including one on the powerful State Corporation Commission, which oversees utilities and insurance and some financial institutions.

Glenn Lewis, a prominent Fairfax lawyer and immediate past president of the Virginia State Bar, said legislators need to be "statesmen" and find a way to remove partisan politics from the selections.

"It hasn't worked recently," Lewis said. "And it's only going to get worse."

In most states, voters elect judges or the governor appoints them, either making choices outright or requiring the legislature to confirm them, according to the American Judicature Society.

In Virginia, the state constitution requires the General Assembly to select judges, but there is no formal process. As a result, the legislature's majority party tends to take control of the process and make choices with advice from legislators from the area that the judge will serve.

But this year, for the first time in modern history, different parties controlled the Senate and House, with no preexisting agreements on how to share power.

Republicans maintained control of the House, but Democrats took control of the Senate after a bitter, costly campaign last year. In the Senate, Democrats were slow to settle into their new position, and Republicans had to learn to cope with not having power.

"Every system is going to have hiccups, speed bumps," said Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach). "Hopefully, people will learn from what happened and what happened this year won't happen ever again."

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