The House Courts of Justice Committee voted 11-9 this evening to shift the judicial performance evaluation program from the Supreme Court of Virginia to the General Assembly.
But the panel rejected by a 10-11 vote a proposal to limit the tenure of the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia to two four-year terms.
Del. Bill Janis, R- Henrico, was the patron of both proposals, which he said reflected his concern that state law puts too much power in the hands of the chief justice rather than in the Supreme Court as an institution.
Del. Kenneth Melvin, D-Portsmouth, didn’t think much of the term-limit proposal. “This bill assumes that the justices of the Supreme Court don’t have enough sense to choose their own leader,” he said. And Del. Vivian E. Watts, D-Fairfax, commented, “We elect our speaker by a majority vote.”
House Minority Leader Ward L Armstrong, D-Martinsville, said, “I hope this isn’t some sort of referendum on the [Chief Justice Leroy Rountree Hassell Sr.]” Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, insisted that it wasn’t.
Watts also objected to the judicial performance legislation. “It totally cuts out the Supreme Court rather than putting the General Assembly in,” she said.
Del. David J. Toscano, D-Charlottesville, questioned shifting the program from a government entity to the research lab that had received the contract for administering part of the program. “Do we do contractual deals through the code?” he asked.
“That’s next year’s bill,” Janis responded.
Griffith said the judicial performance issue has become “a classic battle between two branches of government.”
The battle was joined when the Supreme Court issued an order that limited dissemination of the reports to legislators. Janis and others insist that the court has no authority to place such a limit on lawmakers.
The judicial evaluation bill and another Supreme Court-related bill sponsored by Del. Manoli Loupassi, R-Richmond, will go to the full house for action by Tuesday, which is the day that each house must complete work on its own bills.
Loupassi’s bill, which passed on a 12-10 vote, would have legislators approve retired district judges who can sit as substitutes. The Supreme Court handles those designations administratively now.
By Alan Cooper