When the 2016 General Assembly convenes tomorrow in Richmond, its agenda will include the election of a justice to the Supreme Court of Virginia.
When it tackles that task, the Assembly should elect Justice Jane Marum Roush to a full term.
Roush’s appointment to the high court by Gov. Terry McAuliffe last August should have been routine. But the governor failed to run his pick by the Republican leaders in the legislature, House Speaker Bill Howell and Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment.
Offended at the perceived snub, they responded by saying that Judge Rossie Alston of the appeals court should get the seat instead of Roush. In a moment of high drama during the Assembly’s special session last summer, the Alston bid failed and Roush has continued to serve.
As the 2016 session gets under way, it would be helpful if both sides in this judicial street fight retired to their respective corners, took a deep breath and consider with clear eyes the long-term impact of this brouhaha on the courts and on our system of justice.
Points to consider:
Roush’s credentials are impeccable. Roush served 22 years with distinction on the Fairfax Circuit Court – her judicial demeanor and ability made her one of the go-to judges when the high court needed a judge to preside over a complex or high-profile case. She knows the law and the Supreme Court’s ways: for 15 years, she delivered the annual review of the Supreme Court’s cases for the Virginia Bar Association. She is highly respected – truly the type of judge one wants to see on the high court. The complaints from Howell and Norment have never been about the quality of Roush’s selection; in fact, they have acknowledged her expertise and experience.
The Supreme Court should be above politics. In a day and age when the public is cynical about the justice system, citizens of this commonwealth need reassurance that their highest court is nonpartisan. Since our judges and justices in Virginia are elected by the legislature, politics no doubt plays a role. But once on the bench, justices put their own political views on the shelf. For an example, look at recently retired Chief Justice Cynthia D. Kinser and current Justice William C. Mims. Both held elected office as Republicans. You’d never know it from their work on the Supreme Court.
History: looking backward. The last time that a gubernatorial appointment to the Supreme Court of Virginia was pushed aside by the legislature was in 1901. Since then, 31 justices have been named by a governor, then faced the legislature for election. In all 31 on those instances, the Assembly let the governor’s choice remain on the court. And those elections have included a Republican Assembly passing on a Democratic governor’s nominee and vice versa.
History: looking ahead. History and precedent are important in a state that has more than 400 years to look back on. Assume that the governor’s failure to pick up the phone was gross political malpractice. Assume that the response of the Speaker and the Senate Majority Leader, who are both lawyers, was petty, mean and childish. How small will the GOP leaders look years from now if they follow through on their threat to unseat Roush? And how incompetent will McAuliffe look if he doesn’t work – and work hard — to save a stellar judge who left a safe job not knowing he hadn’t done his homework?
Someone, one hopes on both sides, needs to recognize this threat to the stability and prestige of the Supreme Court of Virginia, and pull all parties back from the ledge.
And then the Assembly needs to give Justice Jane Roush a full term on the high court.