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Calling all angels

The 2011 General Assembly, which convenes Wednesday, will be seeking to elect a new justice to take the seat of retiring Supreme Court Justice Lawrence Koontz.

Eight statewide bars have handed down endorsements, with the results a veritable crazy quilt and with no runaway winner emerging. Judge Elizabeth McClanahan of the Court of Appeals is the ostensible leader in endorsements, having been tapped by all eight bars and given the highest recommendation by five. Danville Circuit Judge Joseph Milam was the only other candidate to be endorsed by all eight, earning the top backing of three.

There are 10 people in the running, including four members of the appeals court – Judges McClanahan, Arthur Kelsey, Randolph Beales and Robert Humphreys – and two circuit judges, Pamela Baskervill of Petersburg and Milam. Appellate lawyers Steve Emmert and Monica Monday round out the list, as do Virginia Beach litigator Glen Huff and William Thro, a former state solicitor general.

Those who earned the bar endorsements should rightfully consider them a vote of confidence in their abilities. But for better or worse, all the nice things that bar groups say may not mean that much once the Assembly is in session.

Del. Dave Albo, R-Fairfax, is chair of the House Courts of Justice Committee and will play a key role in whoever gets Koontz’s seat on the court.

He told this newspaper in an interview this week that he views himself as the broker of the process and he won’t be advocating one candidate over another.

The race is wide open, he indicated, and that basically it will depend on the effectiveness of a candidate’s legislative angels. An angel, in this context, is a legislator who will takes the candidate around to meet other legislators, talks up his guy’s or gal’s chances and serves as an advocate.

If needed, the angel may even work a deal for the candidate. Supreme Court Senior Justice Elizabeth Lacy once noted, famously, that the Assembly is a place where you might see a judge traded for a bridge.

Expect the 10 – or as many of the 10 that can spare the time – to be working the halls of the Assembly, meeting and greeting delegates and senators.

Albo provided some clues to the Assembly’s mindset in a separate interview with the Associated Press earlier in the week. Albo told the AP, “The perfect candidate is somebody who geographically represents an area not represented or underrepresented on the Supreme Court.”

He added, “It’s someone who has been an accomplished lawyer for years, has lots of experience and has been a judge for a little bit.”

Check your scorecards to figure out what the geographical comment means. If justices are identified with their original home areas, then Northern Virginia has Justices Bill Mims and LeRoy Millette; Central Virginia has Chief Justice Leroy Hassell and Justice Don Lemons; Hampton Roads has Justice Bernard Goodwyn; and Southwest Virginia has Justice Cynthia Kinser. The Valley and Southside aren’t presently represented, and the Southwest would lose a little clout with the departure of Koontz, who is from Salem.

The thought that the new justice should have prior judicial experience may be the most telling detail and could tilt things to the appeals court candidates, who have been not just judges but appellate jurists.

Expect the six candidates with judicial experience to play that card when making the rounds. And the other four have been trained as lawyers, so they should know how to distinguish an argument that goes against them.

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