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Judges face questions on performance evaluations

gavel_2_mainLegislators had tough questions this month for a handful of Virginia trial judges seeking new terms on the bench. Five of the 47 judges appearing before General Assembly panelists were asked to explain low marks on their bench performance.

The full list of judicial performance evaluations can be found HERE.

All appeared to satisfy Assembly members that they planned to address reported shortcomings.

“I am frankly embarrassed,” Montgomery County Circuit Judge Marc Long Jr. told the senators and delegates at judicial interviews Dec. 6. Lawyers and other observers faulted Long for his patience, respect, fairness and impartiality on the bench.

“I’m trying to watch my tone. My tone can be harsh at times,” Long said. “I need to do some self-reflection,” he added after hearing suggestions from Del. Rob Bell, R-Charlottesville.

“I really took this evaluation to heart. I went over it with my mentor judge,” Long said.

Long said he would “take any steps necessary” to seek improvement. That comment was well received by Del. Vivian E. Watts, D-Annandale.

Long’s expression of embarrassment and his desire to improve “is exactly where I want to see you coming from,” Watts said.

Steps taken

Arlington County Circuit Judge Daniel Fiore was ready for the questions about his survey scores.

Fiore acknowledged his performance reviews were “disappointing and embarrassing.” He said he sat down with the Arlington legislative delegation and met with his mentor judge. To address concerns about patience, he read articles on how CEOs and managers maintain an appropriate temperament and then implemented changes.

Fiore said he had a retired judge come to observe his courtroom and shared that judge’s review with legislators.

“My intention is to get it right,” Fiore said.

The judge said, rather than interrupt a lawyer’s examination of a witness, he now writes down his questions to ask at the end of the lawyer’s questions.

Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, recalled the practice of the late U.S. District Judge J. Harry Michael Jr. of shaking hands with the litigants at the end of a hearing. Bell suggested keeping in mind the need for pro se litigants to feel as though they’ve had their “day in court,” even when the ruling goes against them.

Reminder list

Winchester Juvenile and Domestic Relations Judge Kimberly Athey had weak scores on faithfulness to the law and efficient use of courtroom time. She said she now keeps a document on her bench that lists the areas to focus on.

“I take this evaluation very seriously,” Athey told the legislators.

“That’s what I wanted to hear,” said Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City, after Athey described her plans for improvement.

Time management

Kilgore urged Harrisonburg J&DR Judge Anthony Wayne Bailey to consider his reviews on timeliness. More than 21% of those surveyed said Bailey “rarely” or “never” starts court on time. Only 28.6% said he was punctual “every time.”

“I would just caution you to bring that number up,” Kilgore said.

Bailey said his court was using a new system to try to avoid the delays of having too many cases set for an early docket. Another issue is the number of litigants who require translators, he said.

“Sometimes for the people sitting there waiting, it’s frustrating,” Bailey said.

Seeking balance

Danville General District Judge Robert L. Adams Jr. was asked by Watts about his scores for patience, courtesy and latitude for litigants.

“I’m still working on that, but it is a high volume court. I am constantly concerned about finding the right balance between letting people have their say and getting people to stick to the issues,” Adams told the legislators.

Job satisfaction

For most of the judges interviewed, their Capitol Square visit came down to a brief exchange of pleasantries with the legislators. “I love the job,” was a common remark of those seeking to extend their time on the bench.

Emporia General District Judge J. Lee Townsend III was enthusiastic.

“I’m having a great time and making a lot of money for the state,” he said, referring to the high volume traffic court sessions he oversees. Emporia is a well-publicized speed enforcement zone.

“They write a lot of tickets down there. We stay very busy,” he said.

Townsend said his standard disposition is to mark down a speeding charge in appropriate cases. If a defendant has had a clean record for three or four years, gave no trouble for the officer and traveled from out of state to be in court, Townsend said he would reduce the charge to defective equipment. The violator would pay the same fine and costs and avoid a moving violation.

“The lawyers get paid. Everybody’s happy,” Townsend said.

Chesterfield County Circuit Judge Steven C. McCallum, nearing the end of his first eight-year term on the bench, said he has his eyes on an appellate judgeship.

“I do aspire to a higher position,” McCallum told the Assembly panel. He said he expected to seek the Court of Appeals seat of Judge Rossie D. Alston Jr., now on the federal bench.

Also meeting with legislators to seek another term was Supreme Court Justice S. Bernard Goodwyn. He was asked about the 2017 change to require two justices to agree before the high court accepts an appeal.

“I believe it might have a minor effect,” Goodwyn said. “If one justice really wants to take a case, we’ll probably take it. But it gives us a little more opportunity to talk them off the cliff,” he said, to chuckles from the legislators.