Norfolk Circuit Judge Charles D. Griffith Jr. acknowledged to members of the Senate and House Courts of Justice Committees yesterday that there’s usually “a kernel of truth” to any complaint about a judge’s performance or demeanor.
He said he believes that criticisms of him to legislators come from his view of himself as “a firm but fair judge.” Firmness might have outweighed fairness at times, he said, but he has taken to heart the criticisms that have delayed – and perhaps – derailed his appointment to a second eight-year term.
He was one of only two judges interviewed by the committees yesterday not to be certified today by House Courts as qualified. Under legislative rules, a judge cannot be considered for appointment unless the committees certify them as qualified. Senate Courts had not taken a certification vote by late this afternoon.
Griffith brought prominent friends yesterday to vouch for him – Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim, Circuit Court Clerk George E. Schaefer, a representative from an organization of ranking Norfolk police officers and Virginia Beach Commonwealth’s Attorney Harvey L. Bryant III.
He also brought upwards of 50 people who stood in support after sitting through almost six hours of hearings, most of them on judicial vacancies they had no interest in.
Griffith’s principal obstacle to reappointment appears to be the rebuke the Supreme Court of Virginia delivered in Wilson v. Commonwealth in reversing a drug conviction.
The court said Griffith’s response to what he viewed as judge-shopping by defense attorney Allan D. Zaleski “raised concerns about the judge’s impartiality in the case and about the public’s perception of fairness in the case.” Some criminal defense attorneys believe that Griffith, who was the city commonwealth’s attorney when he was appointed to the bench, remains too prosecution-oriented.
Zaleski spoke against the reappointment, but he was the only person to do so. He blamed the absence of critics on fear of retribution by Norfolk judges. The committee got bogged down in deciding whether to hear testimony about cases pending before state appellate courts. An effort to override the chair and allow it lost on a 12-7 vote, which appeared at the time to be a good sign for Griffith.
The legislature is expected to fill more than 20 vacancies tomorrow.
The local delegations appeared to have reached a consensus on most of those vacancies, but it was not clear yesterday whether there is a consensus on a general district seat in Roanoke or a seat in the circuit that includes Charlottesville and Albemarle County or in a few other circuits.