Assembly declines O’Berry reelection

Peter Vieth//February 1, 2021

Assembly declines O’Berry reelection

Peter Vieth//February 1, 2021

Chesterfield County General District Judge Pamela O’Berry was passed over Jan. 26 as the General Assembly voted to reelect sitting trial judges to new terms.

O’Berry had come under fire from citizens who said she often failed to show respect for courtroom participants. Sen. Joe Morrissey, a Democrat whose district includes part of Chesterfield County, said 15 lawyers spoke anonymously to oppose a third term for O’Berry, the former chair of the Virginia ABC board. 

Complaints aired

The concerns about O’Berry’s performance were aired publicly twice. Lawyers and others spoke Dec. 11 to defend her performance in the face of criticism. Left off a list of judges certified as “qualified” by the Senate Judiciary Committee, her credentials again were assailed in a committee hearing Jan. 25.

Morrissey said O’Berry’s survey scores were the lowest of 47 judges seeking new terms this year. A former clerk described her as “rude” and “churlish,” Morrissey said. Although O’Berry is African American, Morrissey said she was renowned for denying bail “specifically for Black folk.”

Morrissey’s sharp criticism was prompted by Sen. Bill Stanley’s motion to restore O’Berry to the certified list. Stanley said he was acting “pursuant to a friend.” Morrissey suggested Stanley was under pressure from a member of Congress.

Morrissey said none of the three state senators representing Chesterfield County supported O’Berry’s certification. “You’re interfering in a judicial district that’s not your bailiwick,” he said.  

“I take umbrage that somebody from outside that jurisdiction, because of some sort of pressure, is now asking that we certify her,” Morrissey said of Stanley’s motion.

Before Stanley could pursue the matter, his motion was ruled out of order by committee chair Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke.

O’Berry was appointed to the bench in 2009 by then-Gov. Tim Kaine, now one of Virginia’s two U.S. senators. Her second term expires March 31. 

Morrissey said that, technically, O’Berry could be nominated and voted on in a second round of judicial elections at the Assembly, but “for the most part, the issue is resolved.”

Public defender named to bench

The Assembly elected one new judge to the circuit bench. Brenda C. Spry heads the Portsmouth Public Defender’s office, and has been a public defender for nearly 31 years.

“I’ve been in court almost every single day for 30 years. There’s no place like it,” she told legislators in a Dec. 11 interview.

Spry almost did not survive a House vote. Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah County, asked for a separate vote on her candidacy. Spry was among a group of people charged in connection with a protest and vandalism at a Portsmouth Confederate monument last year. Charges were dropped in November. Del. Steve Heretick told WAVY-TV he was rebuffed in a request to delay the House vote on Spry’s nomination so he could get more information on complaints about her work.

Only after a protracted voting period did Spry garner the required 51 votes to win election in the House Jan. 26.

Two other judges had close calls in voting for new terms. Prince William County Circuit Judge Carroll A. Weimer Jr. and Shenandoah County Circuit Judge Amy B. Tisinger were both pulled from a House voting block by Democratic delegates. 

In separate votes, Weimer received 51 votes and Tisinger 55 votes of the required 50 to survive the House procedure.

Judge Stewart passed over

Stafford County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Judge Andrea Stewart remains under scrutiny. She was not re-elected in the first round of Assembly judicial selection. A former Stafford County prosecutor, Stewart was chosen for the bench in 2015.

Like O’Berry, Stewart struggled with performance surveys after five-and-a-half years on the bench. A spreadsheet of survey results listed Stewart next to last, just above O’Berry. Stewart’s surveys showed weakness in patience, courtesy, and respect for court participants. Stewart also ranked low in impartiality and in providing appropriate latitude for lawyers.

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax County, asked that Stewart’s name be pulled from the certified list.

“I had some questions about her Judicial Performance Evaluation, and I wanted some time to talk to practitioners about their experiences in her court,” Surovell said Jan. 25. The Assembly will vote again on judges before adjournment, now scheduled for Feb. 11.

JIRC member ousted

The Democrat-controlled Assembly declined to approve another term for Loudoun County Circuit Judge James Plowman as a member of the Judicial Inquiry and Review Committee. 

“The will of this caucus is to put somebody else on,” Sen. Scott Surovell explained when the decision was questioned in the Senate. Surovell had asked Plowman at a December 11 interview about the regulation of judges by the commission and a lack of transparency about JIRC actions. But Surovell did not point to any specific point of criticism when the Senate acted to take Plowman’s name from a list of appointees.

“The proceedings of the Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission are all confidential, so it’s almost impossible to figure out what they do or how they do it, or what was decided or not decided, because nobody gets to see it except the people that are on that commission,” Surovell said Jan. 26. “It’s really kind of a black box over there,” he said, acknowledging no specific criticism of Plowman.

Update: This article was corrected Feb. 1 to reflect that Judge Andrea Stewart of the 15th District Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court was not re-elected in the Assembly’s first round of judicial elections. Her name had been inadvertently included with elected judges in the House of Delegates minutes of Jan. 26.

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