The political patronage plums could begin to fall in record numbers in Virginia next month when the Democrat-controlled General Assembly faces the prospect of choosing up to six new circuit court judges and creating 12 more judgeships.
While Republican state legislators stand by, upset that their minority status gives them little say over the election of the judges, their Democratic colleagues will fill the six circuit court vacancies as a result of the retirement of three judges and the addition of three new judgeships.
The possibility also exists that the Democrats could appoint another 12 judges if the legislature approves a proposal to create a new state court of appeals, an intermediate court that will hear appeals of cases that now must go directly to the Virginia Supreme Court. The new court would probably sit in three-judge panels at various sites across the state.
Although the appeals court measure has more support than when it first surfaced in the 1970s, some legislators said the chances are slim that the bill creating the court will pass this year. If it does, the legislators say it is unlikely that appointments will be made during the same session.
Those long odds have not quieted Republican fears, especially in Northern Virginia, which stands to gain the most new judges with three judicial vacancies to fill in Fairfax and one in Loudoun circuit courts.
One of the Fairfax vacancies will be created Dec. 17 when Circuit Court Judge James C. Cacheris resigns to become a federal judge in Alexandria. The other three openings will be created if the legislature approves three new judgeships that are being recommended by the State Judicial Council. Two other vacancies will be created by the retirement of circuit court judges near Bristol and Martinsville.
Democratic legislators have controlled the elections of state judges for years by selecting judicial nominees in caucuses and then binding Democratic legislators to vote for the caucus's nominees.
"I think the concern exists about the manner of appointments irrespective of the number of judges," said state Del. John H. Rust Jr. (R-Fairfax). "We are going to make every effort to make sure our input is heard. The fact of the matter is that most of the judicial appointments are filled in a closed Democratic caucus. That means that 33 people select a judge and that is wrong. A judge ought to be selected by a majority vote."
"It's an abomination of our legislative process," said state Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax), who will be minority leader when the General Assembly convenes Jan. 13. "We're going to make an issue of it this year because of our increased numbers."
"The Republicans cry every year that it's a closed shop that they don't get to appoint judges," said Robert F. Horan Jr., a Democrat who is Commonwealth's Attorney in Fairfax County. "When Republicans get a chance they appoint Republicans -- that's one of the political realities of the thing."
"I consider it to be such a total farce that I generally refuse to participate in the process," said state Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell Jr., (R-Alexandria). "
The initial screening of applicants for judgeships is usually done by the local bar association which solicits applications from lawyers. In Fairfax the county bar association has received 19 applications this year compared to less than a dozen applications received when the last circuit court vacancy in the county occurred three years ago.
The association plans to meet sometime this week to vote on the applicants and will forward its recommendations to the Northern Virginia Democratic delegation by Monday.
State Sen. Adelard L. Brault (D-Fairfax), the senior member of the Northern Virginia delegation, has said he is eager to elect the first woman in Virginia to a circuit court judgeship. Sources say Brault has told them he is supporting Johanna L. Fitzpatrick, 35, a Fairfax County juvenile and domestic relations court judge, for the judgeship.