IN A TIME-HONORED display of how not to select judges, a one-party caucus has met in closed session in Richmond and chosen a new justice for the highest court in the state. True to bad tradition, the latest choice for a seat on the Virginia Supreme Court then sailed through the House and Senate with the caucus-bound votes of all participating Democrats.Republicans -- who never have any voice in the process leading up to these pre-cooked floor votes -- either did not vote or abstained in protest.
This is one of two bad arrangements by which state judges are selected in Virginia. The other is for a governor to fill a vacancy when the legislators aren't around and then seek the General Assembly's approval the next time it's in town. The genteel tradition in this instance is for the legislature to rubber-stamp the appointment -- which is about the only way Republicans, with a GOP governor, might have any say.
Once in a while some member of the General Assembly has the nerve to make noise about the caucus fix, but it's considered impolite. Five years ago, Fairfax Republican Wyatte B. Durrette Jr. called for an end to the practice, terming it "one of the most flagrant abuses of representatvie government in Virgina today. "He pointed out that in shutting out Republican legislators, this process deprives voters represented by Republicans of any voice in judgeship selection. "Like dutiful soldiers," Mr. Durrette said, his Democratic colleagues "march into their secret chambers, hold their debates behind closed doors . . . and then vote in secrecy and come forth to vote again en masse for the individual chosen by the caucus regardless of their personal preferences or how slim his margin of victory." This modest assessment was greeted with the sound of silence by majority members.
If Republicans ever predominate in Richmond, perhaps enough of them will remember their proper frustration with and opposition to this system. Short of that, any move to improve the process is something less than a sure thing. Still, selectin of judges by a legislature is bad; by a one-party caucus worse; and in secret -- with no announced vote, either -- a gross way to make such important decisions.