Ten years from now, very few General Assembly Republicans are likely to recall the name Verbena M. Askew, let alone remember the wreckage of her reappointment as a Circuit Court judge in Newport News.
If they do reminisce, Republican leaders may be hard-pressed to look back on Askew's difficult reappointment process as one they handled with equanimity.
The Askew episode revealed many things about politics under Republican rule, including that the party is still learning how to govern in Richmond. In 2001, Republicans inflicted a protracted budget impasse on themselves; two years later, many are wondering how this one judicial reappointment turned so ugly, so quickly, on their watch.
Askew's reappointment was problematic from the start. A black woman appointed eight years ago by a Democratic General Assembly was going to be looked at very closely by the Republican majority, and her tough-minded, outspoken ways in court were sure to stir resentments at the state Capitol, just as they had back home. The fact that a female colleague had been awarded a $64,000 settlement after accusing Askew of sexual harassment only gave her opponents even more material to exploit.
All that said, it didn't take long for Republicans on the Courts of Justice committees of the House of Delegates and state Senate to stray from an evenhanded review of her professional record and into the details of her personal life.
House Courts Chairman Robert F. McDonnell (R-Virginia Beach) mused to the Daily Press, Askew's hometown newspaper, about whether she had violated the state's anti-sodomy statute and therefore might be ineligible for another term. At her reconfirmation hearing, state Del. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun) asked how close Askew was sitting to a female dinner companion last month. Like most of their Courts colleagues, McDonnell and Black, who are white, aspire to be attorney general.
Senate Courts Chairman Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach) was presiding and pulled Black back from the brink, as he did with freshman state Sen. Ken Cuccinelli (R-Fairfax), when Cuccinelli was aggressively questioning Askew about what he called her "semantic hair-splitting."
Stolle said later that he was determined that the hearing be fair, although he acknowledged that "as these things do, it took on a life of its own."
Askew's "sexual preference or orientation is not an issue for us to consider in the Courts committee," said Stolle, who did not speak with such clarity or conviction in the reconfirmation hearing.
"The issue is how she ran her courtroom and how she conducted herself as a judge," Stolle said.
In the Askew hearing, the line of questioning frequently wandered off her professional performance, as if lawmakers had no idea that their every move was being watched.
But Virginians are always watching and listening. For instance, the members of the Log Cabin Republican Club of Northern Virginia sized up the Askew situation and issued a statement Monday denouncing McDonnell, saying he had "politicized and degraded the process of appointing our judges."
"Prying into anyone's private sexual behavior runs counter to the core Republican principles of limited government and individual liberty," said the club, a group of gay and lesbian political activists.
Legislative colleagues were watching, too.
Del. Dwight Clinton Jones (D-Richmond), a Baptist minister and fiery orator, rose on the House floor Monday to protest the Republican plan to derail Askew's reconfirmation later that day -- the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
"It's a low day for us when we scour beneath fingernails and when we put flashlights into people's closets," Jones quietly admonished colleagues. "And yes, the most damning travesty of all is the unspoken, underlying, very real undertones of sexual and racial innuendo."
To outsiders, Virginia's system of lawmakers electing judges looks quirky and even unfair, a cloistered system of good ol' boys looking out for each other. In a bygone era (when Democrats ruled the legislature), a white male elite saw to it that its own kind was elevated to judgeships and kept those seats.
For all its flaws (did you hear about the time in the 1980s when the House and Senate decided a judgeship on the toss of a coin?), the old system had composure. It was generally self-policing: Good lawyers made it to the bench and bad judges were held to account.
Nowadays there are no wise old heads overseeing judicial selections. Forty-something Republicans are rewriting the rules on judicial screening and recertification. Legislators should of course scrutinize the records of all judges, but now the process has the sharp tang of ideology, much like the nomination and confirmation process between the White House and Congress.
Democrats and Republicans in Richmond disagree vehemently about the process regarding Askew, but they do agree on this: If her difficult case is any guide, the partisan fireworks over judgeships will not soon subside.