Longtime Va. Judge Nominated for U.S. Appeals Court Has Been a Trailblazer

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Virginia Supreme Court Justice Barbara Milano Keenan, a longtime Northern Virginian who has served at every level of the Virginia judiciary, was nominated by President Obama on Monday to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

Keenan, 59, has been a state Supreme Court justice since 1991 and a trailblazer for women in the law throughout her career. At 29, she was the first female general district court judge in Virginia when she was selected for the Fairfax County bench in 1980. She became the first female circuit court judge when she was promoted to that court in 1982.

In 1985, Keenan was one of 10 judges named to the first Virginia Court of Appeals, and the only woman, when that court was created. She was selected for the state Supreme Court, the second female justice there, in 1991.

"Justice Keenan has a long and distinguished record of service on the bench," Obama said in a statement. "Her commitment to fairness and judicial integrity has been unwavering throughout her career."

The Fourth Circuit has jurisdiction over the federal district courts in Maryland, the District, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. There are five vacancies on the circuit bench, and Keenan is Obama's second nominee for the court. U.S. District Judge Andre M. Davis of Maryland was picked by Obama in April, was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in June and is awaiting confirmation by the full Senate.

Keenan was born in Austria, where her father, a highly decorated World War II veteran, was serving as chief of intelligence operations after the war. She was raised in Northern Virginia and received her bachelor's degree from Cornell University in 1971, her law degree from George Washington University in 1974, and a master's of law from the University of Virginia in 1992. She lives in Alexandria.

After law school, Keenan served three years as an assistant commonwealth's attorney in Fairfax under Robert F. Horan Jr., then spent four years in private practice before becoming a district court judge. As a circuit judge, she once sentenced a rapist to 110 years in prison and ruled that adult bookstores could remain open in Fairfax, but without partitioned viewing booths.

On the state Supreme Court, she was criticized for dissenting from a 1995 majority opinion that ruled lesbians were unfit to have custody of a child. She wrote majority opinions upholding the state's civil commitment law for sex offenders in 2005 and affirming the murder conviction last year of a defendant in the controversial "Norfolk 4" case. Keenan's dissent in a case last year challenging the admissibility of drug-test certificates without live testimony closely mirrored the opinion written this year by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in the Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts case ruling the certificates alone were inadmissible.

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