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Senate standoff puts judge elections on hold

A political clash in the state Senate Tuesday delayed otherwise routine Virginia judicial elections at least until Thursday.

Democrats and Republicans differed over whether to elect a slate of 49 judges that included two new faces – both former delegates. Democrats claimed they had an understanding that only incumbent judges would be up for re-election, but Republicans wanted to vote on the entire slate, including the two delegates.

With the Senate evenly split between parties, and with Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling barred from voting as a tie-breaker in judicial elections, the session devolved into stalemate.

Each side accused the other of being obstructionist.

“We’re ready to go right now on these 47 incumbent judges,” said Richard L. Saslaw, D-Fairfax. “It’s the opposition of the other party that’s brought this thing to a halt.”

Tommy Norment, R-Williamsburg, prodded Saslaw to explain the Democrats’ unwillingness to vote on the two former delegates, suggesting it was merely payback for the GOP’s takeover of the Senate. “Is this a judicial selection issue or is this a bruised feelings and political ego question?” Norment said.

Saslaw responded it was best for neither party to question the other’s motivations.

The two new judge candidates are former Del. Bud Phillips of Castlewood and former Del. Clay Athey of Front Royal. Phillips is a Democrat and Athey a Republican. Both are nominated for circuit court seats. No legislator has publicly opposed their election.

Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Winchester, said lawyers in her district were “deeply upset” over the judicial vacancy in the 26th circuit where Athey would replace Judge John R. Prosser, who retired last March.

The Senate showdown ended when Norment withdrew a motion to suspend the rules. The judgeships issue could be taken up again on Thursday, according to published reports.

-Peter Vieth

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