“A case or controversy is necessary to analyze whether the inferior court” overstepped, the Supreme Court wrote in a brief order Friday. It said Arlington Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti (D) “has not identified a specific matter in which the circuit court has exceeded its jurisdictional boundaries.”
A separate challenge to the county judges is still pending. Arlington Public Defender Brad Haywood filed a petition arguing that a judge on the circuit court has violated the law by failing to hold hearings for people asking for release from jail or lower sentences.
The legislature has been a more fruitful avenue for those seeking changes to the criminal justice system. This year, lawmakers decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana and curtailed judges’ power to block dismissal of cases when both parties agree. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has called for full legalization of marijuana.
Dehghani-Tafti was elected last year on a platform that included marijuana decriminalization. But when she began moving to drop those cases in court, county judges demanded specific, written explanations every time she declined to pursue or amended the charges in a case.
Dehghani-Tafti asked the state Supreme Court in a petition earlier this year to find that the judges were encroaching on her discretion and exceeding their authority with such a “blanket requirement.” Before she took office, she noted, prosecutors would routinely drop cases in court with only a few words.
“Based on our research, this is the only order of its kind across Virginia,” she wrote in a Washington Post op-ed.
The requirement to write a motion explaining every change in every case, she wrote to the Supreme Court, was cumbersome enough to “chill [her] discretion.”
Attorneys for the circuit court bench countered that it was a “not unreasonable” way to “promote efficient use of in-court hearing dates.” Deciding whether to grant a motion to dismiss is “an essential judicial function,” they added. Should Dehghani-Tafti want to challenge that review, they argued, she would have to appeal a ruling in a specific case rather than asking broadly for a check on judicial power.
The Supreme Court agreed with that procedural objection without assessing the substance of the dispute. Attorneys for the judges did not respond to a request for comment on the state high court’s ruling.
The marijuana possession charge that sparked the conflict was dismissed by a circuit court judge after a written memorandum from Dehghani-Tafti.
“I think the court could have and should have decided the issue, but what is clear is that the court left the door open for us to come back,” Dehghani-Tafti said in an interview.
To do so, however, she would need to challenge a specific ruling.