A bill that its sponsors said would eleiminate political intrigue from the selection of state judges was defeated in the Virginia Senate today, 20 to 19.
The proposal would have created a 15-member judicial nominations commission to advise the General Assembly on election of judges.
These elections are annually plagued by infighting within local bar associations, which play an unofficial but influential role in recommending candidates, and by battles between Assembly members over patronage rights.
Judges chosen regularly include recent members of the Assembly or law partners of current members. A survey of the 16 circuit court judges in Northern Virginia last year showed that half had direct personal or professional relationships with members of the Assembly before being elected to the bench.
Both the Virginia State Bar, the official policymaking body of the state's lawyers, and the unofficial Virginia Bar Association had endorsed the bill. However, after two hours of often heated debate, senators who argued that the proposed commission would make the proposed commission would make it more difficult for nonlawyer citizens to influence judicial selection defeated the bill.
Eight of the Senate's nine nonlawyer members were present and six voted against the proposal, including Sens. Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William) and Charles L. Waddell (D-Loudoun). They were the only Virginias who opposed it.
Sen. L. Douglas Wilder (D-Richmond), a lawyer and the Senate's only black member, also opposed it because, as he said in an interview later, "I would rather trust the political process to elect black judges than blue-ribbon commissions"
In debate, Wilder reminded the Senate that the first three of the state's four black judges were elected without benefit of bar association backing.
Wilder also said he objects to a provision in the bill that would have made deans of the state's four law schools ex-officio members of the advisory commission.He said that Dean Emerson Spies of the University of Virginia law school "once said publicly that only three blacks would have been admitted to that school if they had been subjected to strict standards rather than a quota system. "Any former black law student who has now passed the bar would start out in the hole with this man if he had a voice in choosing judges," he said.
The commission appointed by the governor, would have included 10 lawyers, one from each of the state's congressional districts, and five nonlawyers appointed at large. The commission itself would appoint advisory panels of lawyers and nonlawyers in each judicial circuit to help it find judicial candidates.
Several senators argued that the commission would increase citizen confidence in the bench. "We know that the selection process is not as secret as some say," Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan (D-Fairfax) said, "but we ought to recognize that it is devoid of citizen involvement."
"I don't think it's going to make any change in the quality of the judiciary," he said, "but public confidence is a precious commodity and it often hangs by a very slender thread."
Sen. Hunter B. Andrews (D-Hampton) said the commission is needed to purify the selection process of patronage politics. Senate members often invoke "senatorial courtesy" in judge contests, insisting that other senators approve their choice among candidates in their district.
"You allude to the rights of the local bar," he said, "but only when the (Assembly) delegation from the circuit agrees with the bar.
Sen. William E. Fears (D-Accomac), the lone senator from the Eastern Shore, strongly opposed the bill. "I practice law in Maryland too," he said. "They have all these silk stocking commissions up there and they put all the country club boys on the bench. I can tell you our judges are 100 per cent better than theirs."