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Editorial: Judging is not a numbers game

Forty incumbent judges traveled to Richmond Dec. 13 to face the hiring squad.

They came to Capitol Hill for their judicial re-election interviews before a joint session of the House and Senate Courts of Justice committees. The 2014 General Assembly will decide if these judges will get a new term or if they should begin looking for other work.

The annual interview process often is routine, even banal. (One recurring question is, “So, how do you like being a judge?”).

But this year’s session took a turn for the dramatic when a report from the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission hit the table.

The report detailed the records of nine of the circuit judges seeking re-election. It took the sentence ranges recommended in Virginia’s voluntary sentencing guidelines and analyzed how often each of the nine was within the guidelines, how often he was below them and how often above them.

Del. Ben Cline, R-Lexington, said that the Assembly didn’t expect a judge to be in the range all the time, but he suggested that the number of downs (sentences below the guidelines’ minimums) needed to be more or less equal to the number of ups during a judge’s eight-year term.

The judges who showed more sentences below the benchmarks had some explaining to do.

Actually, one judge whose ups and downs were out of whack presumably is safe. New Kent Circuit Judge Thomas B. Hoover posted numbers that weren’t in equipoise. His sentences were below the guidelines in 3.6 percent of his cases and above the guidelines in 12.4 percent. He didn’t face any questioning over this discrepancy – after all, criminals don’t have many advocates on Capitol Hill.

Bedford Circuit Judge James Updike (up only 6.1 percent and down 21 percent) had to defend himself by arguing that Bedford wasn’t a hotbed of leniency. When Updike  said that he approved plea deals struck by the commonwealth’s attorney, Randy Krantz, and his assistants, legislators in turn blasted Krantz, who was present in support of Updike. Del. Jackson Miller, R-Manassas, thundered that if the people of Bedford had this information, “They would be infuriated that their circuit court judge is the softest of the judges throughout the commonwealth.”

The emphasis on numbers opened up a clear division on the Courts panel, but not the predictable red-blue schism. Younger members of the panel saw the numbers as catnip.

It was older, more experienced legislators who urged caution. The grayer heads of the group, including Sens. Tommy Norment, R-Williamsburg, and  Henry Marsh, D-Richmond, said putting too much emphasis on numbers was a mistake.

Norment reminded his colleagues that sentencing guidelines in Virginia are voluntary, by deliberate design of the General Assembly. He added that judging is so much more than numbers and that they “truly do not reveal all of the considerations that have gone on.”

Spoken like the veteran lawyer and lawmaker Norment is.

But you read it here first: Despite Norment’s wise comments and the support they gathered on the Courts panel, any circuit judge who seeks re-election in December 2014 better have a clear handle on his or her sentencing numbers from the past eight years, along with a detailed set of justifications, if necessary.

The judge who fails to take those precautions is a fool.

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