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Possible deal on judicial evaluations

A meeting between three members of the House Courts of Justice Committee and three members of the Supreme Court of Virginia appears to have defused – but hardly eliminated – animosity over the judicial performance evaluation program.

At the meeting on Tuesday, Chief Justice Leroy Rountree Hassell Sr. agreed to withdraw an order that limited dissemination of the evaluations with the understanding that legislators would keep them confidential.

Del. David B. Albo, R-Fairfax, chairman of the House courts committee announced the agreement yesterday evening at a meeting of his committee that was attended by most members of the Senate courts committee, although they emphasized that they were not meeting as a body.

Several legislators bristled at any suggestion that an agreement not to disseminate the reports beyond the legislature was a condition for withdrawing the order, and Del. Vivian E. Watts, D-Fairfax, suggested that the committee emphasize that the agreement to keep the questionnaires confidential was the legislature’s decision, not the court’s.

Albo said the treatment of the reports would be similar to the way legislators handle the questionnaires that judicial candidates fill out before they are interviewed by the courts committees. Legislators frequently refer to the questionnaires and even quote from them during the interviews, but they otherwise remain confidential.

In a letter to Albo Tuesday, Hassell said the order was not intended to “prohibit members of the General Assembly from asking a judge about the content of his or her evaluation. The order does not in any way impair a legislator from fulfilling his or her constitutional duties. Rather, the order merely prohibits the dissemination of the evaluations to the public or media.”

Albo said he would have the five judges immediately affected by the impasse appear before the House courts committee tomorrow and would make their evaluations available to the other members of the committee.

It was not clear whether the Senate courts committee would join them and Senate courts chairman Henry L. Marsh III would provide the evaluations to its members.

The evaluations were delivered to the chairmen of the courts committees in sealed packets accompanied by the order prohibiting disclosure.

By Alan Cooper

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