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Appraisals with praise

Most incumbent judges get high marks in performance surveys

Peter Vieth//December 18, 2015

Appraisals with praise

Most incumbent judges get high marks in performance surveys

Peter Vieth//December 18, 2015

Thumbs upIncumbent judges had an easy time of it at a recent General Assembly interview session.

The 2015 interviews stand in stark contrast to the re-election process last year, when five incumbent judges were fired by legislators and not given another term.

With only a handful of exceptions, this year the judges scored well on two performance measures used by the General Assembly to evaluate sitting judges.

Even judges who faced questions about their work appeared to satisfy legislators about their capabilities.

The Dec. 11 session largely validated the use of judicial performance evaluations, a court-legislature cooperative program now in its second realization.

Legislators received results of surveys completed by lawyers, jurors and court staffers about the judges who appeared before them.

Similar surveys released last year led to ouster of five judges seeking re-election. One was not even interviewed. Candidates found a friendlier reception at Capitol Square this month.

“The performance evaluations have shortened our process a lot,” said Del. David B. Albo, chair of the House Courts Committee.

Patience an issue for some

Several judges were questioned about low patience scores.  All promised to do better.

“My big issue was not letting people talk,” acknowledged Fairfax County General District Judge Mitchell I. Mutnick.

Williamsburg Juvenile and Domestic Relations Judge George C. Fairbanks IV said he was under pressure to get through his docket before his courthouse closed.

“I have to constantly balance: Can we get the job done and how much time can I give the attorney?” Fairbanks said.

Newport News JDR Judge Ronald E. Bensten said he, too, suffered from a heavy caseload. His push to move the docket along “alienates some folks,” the judge said.

Danville JDR Judge Dale M. Wiley said he was puzzled about his low patience scores.

“I can assure you that is an issue I will improve on if I’m re-elected,” Wiley told the legislators.

Judge George D. Varoutsos was faulted on faithfulness to the law and knowledge of the law.

“I think I need to do a better job explaining my rulings to the parties,” he told the legislators.

A similar pledge came from Fairfax County Circuit Judge Robert J. Smith.

Sentencing stats also used by legislators

Legislators had both JPE surveys and sentencing statistics to use in evaluating the judges.

Spotsylvania County Circuit Judge Joseph J. Ellis was asked about his relatively low (70.2 percent) compliance with sentencing guidelines.

He described the case of a child molester in which the guidelines called for only three to six months, a range he termed “absurd.”

“There are cases like that that the guidelines will never, ever fit. It’s the vagaries of the human condition,” Ellis said.

A handful of citizens spoke in opposition to some of the candidates, most complaining about rulings on child custody issues.

The courts committees will certify judges for re-election soon after the 2016 session begins next month.

Roush still a long shot

The political climate remains chilly for Virginia Supreme Court Justice Jane Marum Roush. The Republican Assembly leadership remains opposed to interviewing Roush for a full term on the court.

Roush was twice appointed to interim terms on the court by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, but GOP leaders announced they preferred Court of Appeals Judge Rossie D. Alston Jr. for the high court.

The Supreme Court issue could be addressed early in the 2016 Assembly session, which begins Jan. 13.

As House courts chair, Albo – a Roush supporter – could arrange for her to be interviewed by the courts committee, but he said he will not do so if she has no chance of election by the GOP majority.

“We don’t give sham interviews to people,” Albo said. “I’m not having a fake interview when they don’t have a chance.”

Court of Appeals docket tracks economy

The caseload for the Court of Appeals appears to be returning to pre-recession levels, Judge Robert J. Humphreys told legislators during his re-election interview.

Asked about the case numbers, Humphreys said the court’s caseload dropped about 8 percent in the years after 2010, when the economic downturn hit home.

The judge explained that lean times meant more deals to avoid the expense of long-term litigation. That meant fewer disputes – both criminal and civil – reached the appellate level.

The caseload is “gradually edging back up,” Humphreys told the Assembly members.

Asked about his break with other judges on some issues, Humphreys said his background in criminal law gives him a different perspective on some issues. He sometimes has to set aside his views to write for the majority.

“The oath I took sometimes means I have to hold my nose when I write an opinion. That’s the discipline of being a judge,” Humphreys said.

Fine-tuning the JPE program

Legislators will hear more about the Judicial Performance Evaluation program when they meet in January. Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons is expected to speak to Assembly members about a study committee that has been looking at ways to improve the program, Albo said.

The surveys used for recent judicial evaluations differed slightly in wording from those used for the last Assembly session.

The court’s JPE Advisory Committee recommended the change in June to address concerns about possible gender and race bias in the survey results, according to a court spokesperson. Lemons approved the change to replace a scale from “excellent” to “unsatisfactory” with a frequency-based rating scale.

The performance factors, including qualities such as “patience” and “knowledge of the law,” did not change.

Former Richmond General District Judge Birdie H. Jamison had suggested the possibility of race and gender bias as she sought, unsuccessfully, to keep her bench seat in the face of unfavorable evaluations. The 2015 Assembly did not re-elect her.

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