-- Newport News Circuit Court Judge Verbena M. Askew made an impassioned plea for reappointment today in an extraordinary legislative hearing that focused attention on the Republican majority's stringent new process for selecting members of Virginia's judiciary.
With another eight-year judicial term hanging in the balance, Askew told the Courts of Justice committees of the state Senate and House of Delegates that she never acted improperly toward colleague Brenda Collins, who won a monetary settlement after alleging that Askew sexually harassed her.
"Until this inquiry, I have had an unblemished record," Askew said. "I want these two committees to know unequivocally that I did not touch Brenda Collins. I did not proposition Brenda Collins. I did not force a friendship on Brenda Collins."
Skeptical Republican lawmakers spent more than two hours grilling Askew about the $64,000 settlement awarded to Collins, delving only briefly into other aspects of Askew's judicial performance as a rapt, standing room-only audience of Askew supporters, other legislators, lobbyists and staff members looked on. The settlement was paid in 2001 by the city of Hampton, where Collins worked at a court for drug offenses that was overseen by Askew at the time.
The House Courts panel is scheduled to vote on Askew's reappointment on Monday and will also decide whether Rosemarie P. Annunziata, who is well known in Northern Virginia legal circles, serves another term on the state Court of Appeals.
Askew and Annunziata join several other judges -- most of them appointed by the legislature when Democrats were in power -- whose records and rulings are being scrutinized by Republicans who have added to their legislative majorities in recent years.
The Askew case has stirred strong emotions in a General Assembly where feelings are still raw over last year's forced resignation of former House speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr. The Amherst County Republican confidentially paid $100,000 to settle a sexual harassment claim made by a female employee of his former construction company. When the payment became known, he was forced from his leadership post by fellow GOP members, who met in secret.
By contrast, Republicans handled Askew's pending reappointment to the $123,000-a-year judgeship in a more systematic and public way. The hearing today included sworn testimony, witnesses appearing in response to subpoenas, a court reporter -- all the trappings of a legal proceeding, which are almost unheard of in legislative committee hearings here.
Askew's reappointment controversy played out all week against a backdrop of racial and sexual issues. Askew is one of relatively few African American women on the Circuit Court bench, and most of her legislative opponents are white males.
During a break in today's hearing, state Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth), a member of the Senate Courts committee, heatedly told a group of Askew supporters that the proceeding appeared to be another "way to tear down an African American woman." Lucas is black.
House Courts member Bradley P. Marrs (R-Richmond) said lawmakers had no racial agenda.
"People are trying to make this a race thing, and it's not a race thing," said Marrs, who is white. "That's the ugly part of this."
Askew mounted a spirited defense of her record, both as a judge and in her dealings with Collins, whom she described as a onetime friend. Several Askew supporters testified before the committees, including the top prosecutor and police chief of Newport News and a 15-year-old rape victim whose attacker was sentenced to four life terms by Askew.
While one local defense lawyer spoke on Askew's behalf, another questioned the judge's demeanor and said she might retaliate against those who opposed her reappointment.
Collins, appearing only because of the committee subpoena, testified that Askew made improper sexual advances to her, pressuring her for an intimate relationship.
"I've been made out to be a liar," Collins said. "I have been called an accuser. I'm not just an accuser, I'm a victim."
Staff writer Steven Ginsberg contributed to this report.