Democratic politicians say the sole GOP state legislator from Fairfax County tossed a monkey wrench into the judicial selection process this month, using his majority-party power to block election of new judges for badly needed seats on the county’s juvenile and domestic relations court.
Republican Del. Tim Hugo says he had concerns about the selection process and no one would listen. But two Democratic senators – including the one who organized the selection process this year – accuse Hugo of exercising an unwarranted one-man veto.
Democrats say Hugo’s move threatens a long-standing bipartisan understanding on how to pick judges for Virginia’s most populous county. Hugo downplays the drama, saying the judgeships will be filled one way or the other.
The conflict came to a head as legislators elected 16 new Virginia trial court judges March 9 before adjourning the next day to await a special session that could produce funding for additional judicial seats.
See the list of elected judges at the end of this story.
Selection process hailed
There are two parts to the judge selection procedure in Fairfax County. The Fairfax Bar Association has a rigorous vetting process with interviews and voting. After the bar makes its recommendations, legislators who represent the county – more than two dozen – do their own public interviews and vote on their choices. The General Assembly has routinely elected the nominees that emerged from the system.
Even as Republicans gained control of the House and Senate, the system remained a bipartisan democracy, said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Mount Vernon. Former Del. David Albo, R-Springfield, said he honored the nonpartisan tradition that stretched back to the days of the late Sen. Adelard “Abe” Brault, D-Fairfax County, who retired in 1983.
The equitable process continued under Sen. Joe Gartlan, D-Fairfax. “Even though he could have been a kingmaker, he gave me a vote,” Albo said.
“The system worked pretty well when you had both a number of Republicans and a number of Democrats,” Albo said.
The House of Delegates elections of 2017 changed the dynamics. Democrats now occupy all of the county delegation except Hugo.
Hugo is a former congressional staffer who now works as a lobbyist. He survived a narrow election –with a recount – to remain in office last year. He is executive director of an association of tax preparation companies.
Hugo denied any intent to wield a veto on the rest of the delegation. “I have questions,” he said.
“I have been telling them for two months I had questions about this and nobody wanted to talk about it,” Hugo said.
Hugo said members of the delegation were given background information on candidates only after they arrived at interview sessions. “They drop the books in our laps two minutes after we walk into the room,” he said.
Surovell said the background books contained confidential forms that were distributed only for the interview session. Candidate profiles and other evaluation criteria were available in advance, he said.
Hugo reportedly was unable to attend the candidate interview session in 2018 because of a schedule conflict. Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, who organized the session, said he had to pick a date within a narrow time frame.
Petersen nominated the two candidates approved by the delegation, Maha-Rebekah Abejuela of the county attorney’s office and Jonathan D. Frieden of Reston. They were interviewed by Assembly courts committee members Feb. 23.
But Hugo blocked the elections, Petersen said. “The House GOP went along with it,” he said.
“I told him, you don’t get a veto over that,” Petersen said of Hugo. “Obviously, he disagreed.”
A third candidate interviewed later in the session, lawyer John A. Kassabian, also was not elected.
Petersen and Surovell were adamant that Hugo would not be allowed to stand in the way of the delegation’s choices.
“If somebody doesn’t like the process, we can go back and review the process. But, at the end of the day, a person who represents only 5 percent of the county is not going to have veto power on the process,” Petersen said.
Surovell said Albo went along with the delegation’s selection, even as a member of the majority party. “Tim obviously has a different point of view than Dave and he’s trying to disrupt our process,” Surovell said.
Hugo said the judgeships will be filled. “We’re going to be sure there are judges for the JDR court,” he said. “One way or another, there will be judges there.”
He said the positions could be filled by the Assembly at the April 18 veto session or circuit judges could make appointments.
“I think there’s an opportunity for everybody to talk about these concerns and work something out,” Hugo said.
Frieden is a former criminal defense attorney who now has a commercial litigation practice at a Reston law firm. Since 2015, he has served as a substitute judge in J&DR court where he has heard more than 2,400 matters while sitting 125 days as a judge, he told legislators. The Fairfax Bar listed Frieden as “Highly Recommended” for the J&DR seat.
“I fell in love with juvenile court,” Frieden told legislators at a Feb. 23 interview session.
But Sen. Richard H. Stuart, R-Montross, later questioned his lack of practice experience in J&DR court. “I have concerns over anyone who’s a candidate for a court they’ve never practiced in,” Stuart said March 11.
Abejuela currently represents the county Department of Family Services in abuse and neglect cases. She previously worked as an assistant commonwealth’s attorney for more than five years, according to a biography published in the Fairfax Bar screening process.
Kassabian has regularly served as a substitute judge since 2007, the bar reported. Both he and Abejuela were “Recommended” in the bar’s screening process.
Patton selected in 29th Circuit
Despite public criticism of changes on the circuit bench in a four-county Southwest Virginia circuit, the Assembly elected Russell County Commonwealth’s Attorney Brian Patton to succeed sitting Judge Henry Vanover. Vanover failed to win re-election earlier in the session despite endorsement by the Dickenson County Bar Association and favorable reviews in a judicial performance survey administered by the Supreme Court of Virginia.
Patton – Vanover’s replacement – is married to a lawyer working as an associate for Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Lebanon. In a Feb. 26 letter to area legislators, Buchanan County attorney Thomas R. Scott Jr. criticized the appearance of political patronage.
In selecting Vanover’s replacement, “you failed to seek any meaningful input whatsoever from the Bar, courthouse personnel, law enforcement and – not the least of which – the public,” Scott wrote to lawmakers. “In essence, you betrayed the very constituency judges are appointed to serve,” Scott continued.
Some candidates who were interviewed on Feb. 23 and March 7 were passed over for election to judgeships.
The Assembly made no selection for a vacancy in the 6th Circuit despite interviews with Greensville County J&DR Judge Carson E. Saunders Jr. and Hopewell lawyer Elbert D. Mumphery IV.
Shenandoah County J&DR Judge Kevin C. Black was not elected to the circuit bench despite being interviewed Feb. 23.
Martinsville lawyer James R. McGarry, Arlington lawyer Judith L. Wheat and Virginia Beach lawyer Timothy J. Quick were not nominated for judgeships in their communities, despite March 7 interviews.
Lynchburg litigator J. Frederick Watson lost out to Gaddy in a bid for the Lynchburg J&DR judgeship.
In a two-way contest for a Hampton J&DR seat, neither solo lawyer Dywona L. Vantree-Keller nor Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Pamela J. Jones was nominated. The Hampton general district judgeship went to lawyer Selena Stellute Glenn over bids by Robert G. Saunders and Romeo G. Lumaban Jr.
The GD seat was vacated by the October death of Judge Albert W. “Pat” Patrick III.
Williamsburg attorney Michael A. Gaten replaces Wilford Taylor Jr. who retired in December after more than three decades on the circuit bench in Hampton.
In their bid for Banks’ Chesapeake J&DR seat, lawyer Erin L. Evans-Bedois lost out to Chesapeake Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney David J. Whitted, who had narrowly missed selection for a judgeship in 2015.
Abingdon attorney Richard S. Buddington Jr. replaces Bristol J&DR Judge Kurt Pomrenke who was removed from the bench by the Virginia Supreme Court in November for judicial ethics violations in connection with a criminal case against Pomrenke’s wife.
16 elected to the bench
The General Assembly elected five circuit judges, five general district judges and six juvenile and domestic relations judges as it wrapped up its 60-day session that started Jan. 10.
The newly elected judges all begin terms on July 1, with one noted exception. They are:
Circuit Court Judges
-Chesapeake J&DR Judge Rufus A. Banks, Jr., 1st Circuit
-Williamsburg attorney Michael A. Gaten, 8th Circuit
-Culpeper County General District Judge Dale B. Durrer, 16th Circuit
-Russell County Commonwealth’s Attorney Brian K. Patton, 29th Circuit
-Prince William County Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney James A. Willett, 31st Circuit (term commencing April 1, 2018)
General District Court Judges
-Suffolk Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Matthew A. Glassman, 5th District
-Hampton attorney Selena Stellute Glenn, 8th District
-Orange County attorney Theresa W. Carter, 16th District
-Wythe County Commonwealth’s Attorney Gerald E. Mabe II, 27th District
-Wise County J&DR Judge Ronald K. Elkins, 30th District
Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court Judges
-Chesapeake Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney David J. Whitted, 1st District
-Portsmouth attorney Diane P. Griffin, 3rd District
-Norfolk attorney Robert M. Smith III, 4th District
-Lynchburg Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Brooke-Taylor Willse Gaddy, 24th District
-Abingdon attorney Richard S. Buddington Jr., 28th District
-Scott County Commonwealth’s Attorney Marcus F. McClung, 30th District
Portions of this story appeared in an article posted March 12.