Republican-led committees voted today to deny a second term to a Circuit Court judge who was accused of sexual harassment in 2000, ending the judicial career of the first black woman to attain that position in Virginia's court system and igniting a racial furor in the General Assembly.
The lopsided, mostly partisan votes against Newport News Judge Verbena M. Askew in the assembly's Courts of Justice committees capped several days of wrenching discussions among lawmakers over what is ordinarily a routine judicial reappointment, but which flared into bitter accusations of racism and sexism among members of the legislature.
By the end of the day, one African American state senator had likened colleagues to a "lynch mob" -- and was gaveled back to order -- while another black lawmaker said the GOP majority had conducted an "execution" of Askew. Sen. Janet D. Howell of Fairfax County had wept openly as she broke with most fellow Democrats to vote against Askew because of what she described as the judge's "poor judgment."
Both sides said that after years of gentlemanly judicial confirmations behind closed doors in Richmond, the Askew case will probably usher in a more open -- but also more contentious -- process of selecting judges, similar to the ideological battles in Washington over nominees to the federal bench.
"In my 15 years in the General Assembly, I don't remember seeing this," said U.S. Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott (D) of Newport News, who joined the standing-room only crowd watching the Senate Courts committee vote. "I'm not aware of any other judge that's been put through a proceeding like this."
Republicans, who had signaled their opposition to Askew during a grueling, seven-hour confirmation hearing Friday, said she had not been forthright with them about the details of a $64,000 settlement that was paid in 2001 after a female court colleague accused the judge of sexual harassment. The settlement was paid to Brenda Collins by the nearby city of Hampton, where Askew had established a court to hear drug cases.
According to testimony at Askew's hearing and documents subpoenaed by the courts committees, Collins said she rebuffed Askew when the judge told her at a Miami conference that she wanted to be "more than friends," that she desired "an intimate relationship."
Collins filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and said Askew undermined her at work by freezing her out of meetings.
At her Friday hearing, Askew said she never acted inappropriately, adding that Hampton -- not she -- paid the settlement to avoid a court battle.
"Until this inquiry, I have had an unblemished record," Askew said. "I did not proposition Brenda Collins. I did not force a friendship on Brenda Collins."
In the House, where the committee rejected Askew along party lines, GOP leaders said Askew's case was essentially identical to that of former speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr., the Republican leader forced from office last summer after he acknowledged paying a $100,000 settlement to a woman who accused him of improper sexual advances.
"Similar standards should also apply to members of the judiciary," said House Courts of Justice Committee Chairman Robert F. McDonnell (R-Virginia Beach). He added that there was a "credible and documented pattern of retaliation" by Askew against Collins, former administrator of the drug court.
Democrats countered that the harassment allegations were never proven and were even disputed by a lawyer who investigated the claim for Hampton. Askew supporters said the judge compiled a strong record during her eight-year term in Virginia's fourth-largest city, with virtually no reversals by higher courts and broad support in her crime-ridden hometown, where she had a reputation for handing out harsh jail sentences to street criminals.
"This is a judge who gets the job done," Del. Kenneth R. Melvin (D-Portsmouth) told his House committee colleagues. "If anything, she is a perfect law-and-order judge."
Askew's reappointment, like others that have come before the assembly since Republicans took control, was closely watched by legal groups, other judges and constitutional experts.
"There is damage done to the independence of the judiciary when a legislative body puts a judge through this level of scrutiny, when it doesn't appear there's a serious offense, if any," said Rodney A. Smolla, a constitutional law professor at the University of Richmond's law school, where Askew got her degree in 1980 after graduating from Howard University.
Askew, who turns 49 on Saturday, declined to comment on the loss of the judgeship, which paid about $123,000 annually.
Gov. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat whose five judicial appointments have sailed through the legislature, also declined to comment after the votes, but he told reporters Tuesday that he was troubled by Askew's reappointment process, especially her hearing last week. In Virginia, the assembly selects nearly all judges by majority vote.
"There were parts of it that went over the line," Warner said. "I would hope that the legislature make clear the criteria it's going to use to evaluate judges."
Republicans said that Askew's job performance involved more than her courtroom work, extending into her professional relationships with lawyers, citizens and, in the case of Collins, with colleagues.
Senate Courts of Justice Committee member William C. Mims (R-Loudoun) said, "Based upon the record and based upon Judge Askew's responses, I believe that the overall social relationship with Ms. Collins was simply inappropriate."