RICHMOND — Virginia’s House and Senate approved a judicial appointment Tuesday for the daughter of a Southwest Virginia Democrat who abruptly quit the Senate in June.
With many Democrats sitting out in protest, the House voted 65 to 0 to give Martha Puckett Ketron a juvenile court judgeship. The Senate soon followed suit, with just two Democrats — Rosalyn R. Dance (Petersburg) and Kenneth C. Alexander (Norfolk) — joining Republicans to support her.
In previous sessions, the House had twice approved Ketron for the judgeship, which she already held on an interim basis. Last year, the House voted 99 to 0 for her appointment. But the Senate had always refused to appoint her to a full, six-year term while her father served in the chamber, citing an anti-nepotism policy.
Her father, Phillip P. Puckett (Russell) stepped down in June, in part, he said, to clear the way for her appointment. But the timing of his exit infuriated fellow Democrats and triggered a six-month federal investigation that concluded last month without charges. And that made Ketron’s appointment a partisan battle — albeit one fought out quietly.
In keeping with tradition in a Capitol that prides itself on civility, those opposed to the nominee chose to abstain rather than to cast a vote against her. There were no floor speeches against the appointment, although Democrats complained afterward that the appointment had been tainted by the circumstances surrounding Puckett’s exit.
“People were just upset at the way it all went down,” said Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax).
Puckett resigned in the middle of a protracted partisan standoff over whether to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. His exit threw control of the evenly divided Senate to the GOP, helping to doom Medicaid expansion, Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s top legislative priority.
Puckett also left as he was discussing a job for himself with the Republican-controlled state tobacco commission. Democrats accused him of trading his Senate seat for jobs for himself and his daughter.
Puckett has said there was no quid pro quo. His service in the Senate had been a well-known impediment to the appointment of his daughter, who had the support of local Circuit Court judges and bipartisan backing in the House, which does not share the Senate’s anti-nepotism policy. He also said that his talks with the tobacco commission did not begin until after he had decided to step down.
The episode also ensnared some high-powered Virginia Democrats who had tried to dissuade Puckett from resigning. U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner and Paul Reagan, chief of staff to McAuliffe, both discussed potential jobs for Ketron as a way of keeping Puckett from quitting.
Reagan suggested that she might head a state agency if Puckett remained in the Senate.
Warner called Puckett’s son, Joseph, and discussed potential jobs for the state senator’s daughter, including a federal judgeship and private-sector work.
Warner has acknowledged “brainstorming” about potential jobs but denied making any explicit job offers to dissuade Puckett from leaving. His actions became an issue in his bid for reelection in November. Warner won a closer-than-expected race over Republican Ed Gillespie.
A federal prosecutor in June launched an investigation into the circumstances surrounding Puckett’s departure. He announced last month that no charges would be filed.
On Friday, the Republican Party of Virginia filed a formal ethics complaint against Warner. Pat Mullins, chairman of the state GOP, urged the U.S. Senate Ethics Committee to probe Warner’s actions in connection with Puckett’s resignation.
“[I]f Warner offered to use his influence to land a job for anyone based simply on political considerations, he has violated Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007, which is punishable up to 15 years in prison,” Mullins wrote to the committee.
Warner spokesman Kevin Hall has dismissed Mullins’s letter as a politically motivated effort to keep the Puckett saga alive.
Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.