-- A Virginia House committee approved a Court of Appeals judge for reappointment today after questioning her closely on a judicial opinion about a lesbian relationship, but the delegates delayed a decision on a Circuit Court judge accused of sexually harassing another woman.
The Courts of Justice Committee voted 16 to 4 to certify Appeals Court Judge Rosemarie P. Annunziata, a former Fairfax judge, for a second eight-year term, sending her name to the full House for what several lawmakers described as certain approval. The Senate has approved Annunziata's reappointment.
"Of course I'm pleased," said Annunziata, who had answered pointed but cordial questions from delegates and heard praise from colleagues on the bench and several lawyers. "It's an interesting process. I'm not sure which was harder, the questions or the accolades."
Republicans on the panel postponed a vote on a Newport News Circuit Court judge accused of sexually harassing a female colleague. The panel will focus on Judge Verbena M. Askew on Wednesday, said Committee Chairman Robert F. McDonnell (R-Virginia Beach).
The Annunziata and Askew reviews are part of an effort by House and Senate GOP leaders to increase their scrutiny of judges before reappointing them. In Virginia, judges are elected by lawmakers and serve limited terms.
McDonnell, who is seeking his party's nomination for state attorney general, declared the Annunziata hearing a success and vowed to continue holding judges accountable for their legal opinions.
"The fact is, there is a litmus test for judges," said Del. William R. Janis (R-Goochland), who voted against Annunziata and said judges must strictly interpret the state's laws.
Today, House Democrats denounced that process, which led to Annunziata's hearing and to a seven-hour, trial-like session with Askew on Friday. They said today's outcome on Annunziata did not lessen their concerns about the Republicans' decision to extensively question judges about opinions.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria), who serves on the courts committee, said Republicans were focusing on Annunziata's dissenting opinion in a divorce case because it involved homosexuality. In the case, a woman was denied custody of her child after having two lesbian relationships.
"The fact that this one opinion, out of over 600, was picked would lead one to believe there is another agenda being pursued. A conservative social agenda," Moran said. "Despite protests to the contrary, the facts belie a fair process."
McDonnell rejected the Democrat's argument. "He's obviously wrong," McDonnell said. "Delegate Moran's party has done a terrible job in reappointing judges. They have just been a rubber stamp. They have turned a term appointment into life tenure. That's not constitutional."
During the hearing, lawmakers asked Annunziata about two other cases, but they spent almost all of the time on the divorce case involving a mother who had lesbian relationships after separating from her husband.
The husband had a relationship with another woman, whom he told the court he planned to marry. The Court of Appeals upheld a lower-court ruling that granted primary custody to the father, because "there is more stability in his surroundings and in his home." Annunziata dissented, arguing that the trial judge "applied different standards when evaluating the parties' post-separation sexual conduct."
Several lawmakers who questioned Annunziata today about her reasoning in the divorce case said they were not satisfied with her answers.
"Is this judge the kind of person who is willing to substitute her own policy and political goals for that of the General Assembly?" Janis asked. "There was a willingness to reach outside of the trial court record."
Del. Gary A. Reese (R-Fairfax), who also voted against the judge, would not say why. "I have my own personal reasons," he said after the committee meeting.
Meanwhile, lawmakers continued to struggle with the Askew case.
On Friday, Askew pleaded with lawmakers for reappointment to the bench despite the harassment allegation. The City of Hampton paid Brenda Collins $64,000 in 2001 to settle the harassment claim.
The House took up the Askew case as it was still struggling with ethical issues raised last year concerning then-Speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr. (R-Amherst), who resigned after it became known that he paid $100,000 to settle a sexual harassment charge brought by a woman in his district.
"I want these two committees to know unequivocally that I did not touch Brenda Collins," Askew told a hushed committee room Friday. "I did not proposition Brenda Collins. I did not force a friendship on Brenda Collins."
Several prominent black Democrats in the House today accused Republicans of mounting an assault on black judges even as Virginians paused to remember slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Askew is one of a relatively few black female judges in Virginia.
In an impassioned speech on the House floor, Del. Dwight Clinton Jones (D-Richmond) said the "travesty" of racism that King fought against continues "even in this august body."
Jones said the Askew hearing was the low point of his 10-year career as a legislator, and he criticized what he said was a GOP-led effort to derail Askew's career based on gossip, hearsay and other unfounded evidence.
He said her hearing "has all of the markings of a prosecution with none of the safeguards of the Constitution."
McDonnell said the reason Askew's vote was postponed was not because Republicans wanted to avoid criticism for acting on King's holiday. He said transcripts from Friday's hearing were delayed.
"Anytime you make changes in the process, there are folks who are unhappy," McDonnell said.