"I don't think he's qualified. . . If Thomson gets on the bench, it will set the judicial system in this city back 200 years."
James M. Thomson, the once-powerful Northern Virginia legislator whose opposition to women's rights groups was blamed for his defeat a year ago, soon may be Alexandria's newest Circuit Court judge.
Despite harsh criticism by some local lawyers, Thomson, 54, a 22-year veteran of the Virginia House of Delegates and the former Democratic majority leader, is expected to win the endorsement of the Alexandria Bar Association in a secret ballet scheduled for Jan. 4.
The contest became at least a two-way race yesterday when Albert H. Grenadier, 52, a trial attorney and former president of the Alexandria Bar Association, announced he also is a candidate.
Besides provoking adverse comment by some blacks and women, Thomson's candidacy has renewed criticism of Virginia's judicial selection process among those who charge that it rewards "old boy cronyism" by appointing retired politicians to the bench.
In a separate development, Alexandria Del. Richard G. Hobson last week appointed a 13 member advisory panel to recommend three candidates besides the bar association's choice.
If endorsed by the bar, however,Thompson is considered likely to win the seat being vacated by senior Circuit Court Judge Franklin P. Backus, who announced on Nov. 30 he will retire from the bench Feb. 1. Th position, which pays $42,500, will be filled by a vote of the Democrat-dominated General Assembly, where Thomson still has strong political ties.
Thomson, who has a private law pratice in Old Town, has been lining up support among members of Alexandria's legal community with a campaign of personal contacts that began only hours after Backus' announcement 2 1/2 weeks ago.
"He called me that night," said assistant City Attorney Burton Hanbury. "I didn't even know that Backus had resigned. I told Thomson I would support him. If Jim wants it, he should have it."
Homson backers also include Acting Commonwealth's Attorney John Kloch, Roger Amole, president of the Alexandria Bar Association, and Senate Majority Leader Adelard L. Brault (D-Fairfax). Brault said Thomson could face a "tough situation" in the legislature but pledged his support if Thomson wins the bar's approval.
A strong and influential voice for Northern Virginia in his years in the House, Thomson nevertheless angered backers of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1976 with antifeminist statements. He once was an ardent supporter of racial segregation, although he stopped making prosegregation remarks in public seven years ago.
Aside from his political beliefs, Thomson's lack of trial experience also has been criticized. A Circuit Court judge has jurisdiction over felony trials, misdemeanor trials appeals from a lower court and civil litigation of $500 or more.
Attorney William B. Moffitt last week called Thomson "a man who is insensitive to racial matters and an avowed segregationist."
Susan Blair, a feminist activist, said, I think the citizens of Alexandria appreciate the honesty and sincerity of Jim Thomson who has unflinchingly repeated through the years of his public life that black people and women are different . . . which would mean he does not believe in equality of rights in the courts of justice which interpret the law in our city and state."
"I don't think he's qualified," said Marvin Miller, 33 one of four attorneys who took their concerns to legislative representatives at a public meeting in Alexandria last week. "He's a politician. The way he's been campaigning for this is scandalous. If Thomson gets on the bench it will set the judicial system in this city back 200 years."
Thomson said in an interview last week that he believed his legislative experience qualified him for the bench. As for his views on issues such as race and women's rights Thomson said, "As a judge you don't have the right to espouse causes."
"I don't see how that can be true" said Charlsie Armstrong, a coordinator of Virginians for ERA. "And if Alexandrians felt he was not qualified to be their representative in Richmond he would be no better qualified to be a judge, which is even more sensitive."
Thomson was defeated in 1977 by Republican Gary Myers after ERA backers campaigned door-to-door against him. Thomson attributed the loss of the influx of newcomers in apartments and condominiums in Alexandria's West End.
Under the present system of judicial selection, the choice of the local bar association traditionally is upheld by the the legislative majority after a caucus of its members.