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Senate holds judicial interviews

Deborah Elkins//January 23, 2012

Senate holds judicial interviews

Deborah Elkins//January 23, 2012

There was nary a whisper about Hernandez at Friday’s judicial interviews conducted by the Senate Courts of Justice Committee.

Even though committee control switched this year from Democrats to Republicans, the Senate followed the same practice as last year’s courts committee and declined to question sitting judges about whether they deferred dispositions in criminal cases in the absence of explicit statutory authorization.

The new committee chair, Sen. Thomas J. Norment Jr., R-Williamsburg, processed the group of around 50 incumbents in a few hours, telling nearly all sitting judges that the brevity of the interview was not meant as a discourtesy. To the contrary, a lack of questions from the senators meant the judge was doing a good job and his tenure on the bench had prompted no questions.

Interviews in the House Courts committee Dec. 9 may have felt like hand-to-hand combat for some judges, with unhappy litigants complaining about the disposition of their domestic relations cases, child advocates complaining the judges were soft on sentencing child sex abusers, and delegates grilling them about how, when and why they deferred disposition in any criminal cases.

Norment thanked the judges for their service to the commonwealth and politely asked if they had enjoyed their experience on the bench.

Supreme Court Justice Donald W. Lemons fielded questions from Sen. Thomas A. Garrett Jr., R-Bumpass, about what factors the high court considers when faced with a disbarred lawyer’s petition for reinstatement of a law license.

No names were mentioned, but Garrett referred to a “sitting member of this body.” On Dec. 16, the Supreme Court granted a petition for reinstatement of the law license of Del. Joseph D. Morrissey, D-Richmond. Lemons said with each petition, the high court has to consider the matter in the context of recommendations made by the Virginia State Bar, as well as how prior petitions have been decided. He observed that some lawyers have regained their licenses to practice even after criminal convictions.

Where do we draw the line, Garrett asked. “Your answer suggests the bar has been set pretty low.”

At the House courts committee interviews, several judges faced complaints by a child advocacy group that they deviated downward too often in sentencing offenders in child sex abuse cases. Camille Cooper, director of legislative affairs for the Judicial Accountability Project of the National Association to Protect Children, told the House committee her group opposed re-election of Buena Vista Circuit Judge Michael S. Irvine and Norfolk Circuit Judge Norman A. Thomas.

When Irvine appeared before the Senate committee, he was ready to provide detail on his sentencing record in 56 cases he had reviewed. He described several cases and offered to provide his own research to the committee.

“This committee is not going to interview in an ambush situation. We’re not going to let someone in with a computer” to criticize a sentencing record, Norment said. Cooper briefly sat in on the Senate interviews but did not address the committee about any judge.

“After making inquiry, I was satisfied” with the judge’s sentencing record, Norment said.

Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, also vouched for Irvine. “I’ve talked to prosecutors in that circuit and the reports I’ve received are he’s very thoughtful and adheres to what most of agree” are appropriate standards, Obenshain told fellow committee members.

Fredericksburg General District Court Judge John R. Stevens also encountered pointed questioning in the House committee, but faced no questions in the Senate committee after he was introduced by supporters Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Montross; Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Fredericksburg; and Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Mechanicsville. Chesterfield General District Court Judge Philip V. Daffron, who also was questioned by delegates about deferred dispositions, faced no such questions in the Senate committee.

Introduced by Sen. Ralph Northam, D-Norfolk, Norfolk Circuit Judge Norman A. Thomas found himself again reciting some of the details of his 2005 case in which his ex-wife obtained a protective order against him during divorce proceedings, and a court’s later expungement of the record.

Norment recused himself and left the questioning to other committee members, after telling Thomas, “being pretty direct, members of the House are having some deliberations about you.” McDougle led Thomas through the proceedings that led to expungement, in an effort to clarify the nature of any findings by the retired judge who heard the protective order matter.

“There never was a finding of guilty or a stipulation of evidence to convict me of anything,” Thomas said.

“But the matter was not resolved at the time of the [Alford] plea, but some months later?” McDougle asked. Yes, some months later, Thomas responded. “I was not present,” he said.

The matter was “taken under advisement. There was no deferred disposition, but after a year, things sort of went away?” asked Stuart. “It was taken under advisement, in a phrase. That’s what the commonwealth wanted,” Thomas responded.

Thomas said he could not provide a copy of records that had been expunged, but he did give the committee a transcript of the hearing on his plea in the protective order case.

The House is expected to vote to certify judicial candidates early this week.

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