RICHMOND — Republicans who control Virginia’s legislature flexed their political muscles Wednesday over a judgeship for the powerful State Corporation Commission, leading Democrats to cry foul in the first open partisan warfare of the week-old General Assembly session.
“This is the exercise of raw political power in its glorious majesty, pure and simple,” Del. David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville) said during a contentious floor debate. “You got the votes, and you’re going to force it down people’s throats.”
At issue was a vacancy on the State Corporation Commission, a three-judge panel that regulates public utilities, banking, insurance and other commerce. Chartered in the early 1900s to oversee the railroad monopolies, the SCC is an independent body sometimes called the fourth branch of the state government.
In recent years, though, its power has been diminished by the General Assembly, culminating last year when legislators passed an overhaul of utility regulation that set strict limits on the SCC’s oversight of Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power.
One of the three SCC judges stepped down more than a year ago, and lawmakers had been unable to agree on a replacement. The Senate, in particular, has slowed the process as Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) feuded with a handful of Republicans who jumped ship last year to join Democrats in voting to expand Medicaid.
When the issue of judicial appointments came up Tuesday in the House of Delegates, Toscano asked Republican leaders whether they expected action on the SCC vacancy. House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) basically shrugged and said he hadn’t heard anything from the Senate.
“It is much more likely that anything involving the State Corporation Commission will be at a much later date,” Gilbert said.
Around 5 o’clock Tuesday evening, though, word spread that the Senate had a name.
After the House floor session began at noon Wednesday, Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) called a recess so the Commerce and Labor Committee could hold an unusual, 30-minute meeting to interview the SCC candidate who had emerged with full approval of the Senate Republican caucus.
And when Democrats learned the name, they were unhappy: It was Patricia West, a former circuit court judge from Virginia Beach who was chief deputy to former Republican state attorney general Ken Cuccinelli II. West joined Cuccinelli in a number of controversial actions, including challenges to federal environmental protections and the Affordable Care Act and defending Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage.
She currently serves on the faculty at Regent University in Virginia Beach.
“What information we have been able to find on social media and in her writings gives us great pause,” said Del. Alfonso H. Lopez (D-Arlington), who complained that the last-minute nomination gave lawmakers no time to fully vet her. West has an active Twitter account and regularly retweets posts from Franklin Graham, Ann Coulter and other conservative icons.
Republicans countered that West is a well-known figure in Richmond and Hampton Roads. And they pointed out another factor: Because the chairman of the SCC is also a woman, West’s appointment would give the agency its first female majority.
“For those on the other side preaching equality, here’s your chance, folks, to practice what you preach,” said Del. Kathy J. Byron (R-Bedford).
Democrats countered that, politics aside, a candidate for the SCC needed more than 30 minutes of review before being appointed. “All we’re asking for is fairness and vetting,” said House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax).
During the brief committee meeting, West presented herself to lawmakers and answered questions. She told the lawmakers that if elected to the SCC, she would carry out the will of the General Assembly as opposed to setting policy of her own.
“I really do believe with all my heart that a statutory agency is one that can be — I mean, we defer to what you want. That’s the job of a judge. The General Assembly tells us what the priorities are, what the policies are, and then we apply the facts that are presented to us,” West said.
That position riled some Democrats, who say that the point of the SCC is to be independent of the General Assembly. “This is not a statutory agency; this is a constitutional agency,” said Del. Mark L. Keam (D-Fairfax). “It’s not subservient to the General Assembly.”
Every attempt to slow West’s nomination, though, was defeated by the slim Republican majority. She won the appointment on a party-line vote, with support from all 51 Republicans. None of the 49 Democrats voted, a show of protest because, by tradition, legislators do not cast “no” votes against judges.
Gilbert, the majority leader, didn’t deny that West’s election was a matter of brute political force but said Virginians will appreciate having “a highly qualified, strong female” judge on the SCC.
Some Democrats pointed out, though, that the term West is filling will be up for consideration again next year. By then, there could be a new majority in one or both houses of the legislature. “I think it’s likely it will come up again,” Filler-Corn said.