U.S. Appeals Court Gets New Judge

G. Steven Agee had been on the Virginia Supreme Court since 2003.
G. Steven Agee had been on the Virginia Supreme Court since 2003.
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By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 3, 2008

One of the nation's most important appellate courts has a new member from Virginia.

G. Steven Agee was sworn in last month as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit after being nominated by President Bush and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. The 55-year-old lawyer had been a Virginia Supreme Court justice since 2003.

Agee's ascension to the Richmond-based 4th Circuit carries potential significance for a variety of cases with local and national significance. The 4th Circuit has played a key role in terrorism matters since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and its rulings affect everyone who lives, works or owns a business in Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia and the Carolinas.

The court has also been at the center of a broader struggle for control of the federal judiciary between the Bush administration and the Democrat-led Congress. Long considered one of the nation's most conservative appellate courts, the 15-member 4th Circuit has lost several prominent Republican appointees over the past several years. The growing list of vacancies has eroded the dominance of conservatives, and the court had been split 5-5 between Republican and Democratic appointees since July 2007.

Agee's arrival restores a 6-5 advantage for Republican appointees, with four vacancies remaining. But legal experts said it's unclear whether Agee, generally known as a moderate conservative from his time as a judge and earlier service as a Republican member of the Virginia House of Delegates, will decisively tilt the balance.

"I think the right word to describe this is incremental in terms of a change in the complexion of the court," said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond. "I don't think it will return them to being the most conservative court in the country, but it won't make them more liberal, either. We'll just have to wait and see."

At a minimum, Tobias said, the appointment will smooth the day-to-day functioning of a court that had been down five members for nearly a year. "It certainly helps in term of caseloads and moving appeals," he said.

At a time of sharp partisan division over judges, Agee sailed through the Senate after Bush nominated him in March to fill one of the 4th Circuit's two Virginia slots. The Senate confirmed him May 20 by a vote of 96 to 0. "Justice Agee's qualifications to serve on the Fourth Circuit are as impressive as any circuit-court nominee for whom I have voted in my 30 years in the Senate," Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) said in a statement. He and Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) had recommended Agee.

Webb said that Agee "has served Virginia honorably with superior intellect and judicial temperament" and that "his expeditious and unanimous confirmation should serve as a model of how to present and confirm judicial nominations in the future."

In a brief written statement, Agee thanked the senators and Bush and added that he is "honored and humbled by the unanimous vote of confirmation."

Agee represented Salem and the counties of Craig, Montgomery and Roanoke in the House of Delegates from 1982 to 1994 and was assistant minority floor leader for his final two years. He was a judge on the Virginia Court of Appeals from 2001 to 2003, and his earlier practice at a Roanoke law firm focused on bankruptcy, trusts and estates, and commercial acquisitions.

Agree graduated from Bridgewater College in 1974 and obtained law degrees from the University of Virginia in 1977 and New York University in 1978.

To fill the remaining vacancies on the 4th Circuit, Bush has four nominees pending before the Senate. They are Rod J. Rosenstein, the U.S. attorney in Maryland; North Carolina federal judge Robert J. Conrad Jr.; South Carolina lawyer Steve A. Matthews; and Roanoke federal judge Glen E. Conrad.

A spokesman for Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) said the governor is accepting applications and recommendations for Agee's replacement on the Virginia Supreme Court.

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