Fifty lawyers and judges have answered a renewed call for candidates to fill as many as seven judgeships on an expanded Court of Appeals of Virginia.
The General Assembly is hoping to select new judges by July 1 as the court prepares to take on review of civil judgments in addition to its existing caseload of criminal, domestic relations and workers’ compensation cases. The expansion will add six new seats, and there is one existing vacancy.
But, as of April 21, officials still were working on a plan for evaluating the new crop of would-be judges.
Virginia State Bar officials told Assembly leaders the VSB Judicial Candidate Evaluation Committee could not finish recommendations on a group that size by May 14, as requested.
VSB committee leaders asked if the Assembly could narrow the field to 15 candidates for consideration. As of April 21, discussions were still underway about the time frame and the scope of evaluations, according to JCEC chair Maryse Allen.
Ordinarily, the VSB committee first does a thorough investigation of each candidate and then interviews the candidates and votes on recommendations in one session, Allen explained.
“It really isn’t amenable to discussing and voting on 50 candidates in one setting,” Allen said.
Prior candidates in the mix
The Assembly’s task may be even more daunting. When combined with candidates recommended as qualified or highly qualified in two prior rounds of VSB evaluations, there are 72 candidates potentially in contention for the seven seats. Other names could come from other bar organizations.
The VSB committee vetted applicants for the vacant seat of now-federal Judge Rossie Alston in February of 2020, recommending 12. The Assembly did not fill the seat at that time. In February of this year, the JCEC reported on 19 candidates for the Court of Appeals in expectation of five new vacancies. Now, there are 46 new contenders. Some names appear on more than one of the three lists.
Other statewide bar groups face the same challenge, and those bars often recommend names that do not appear on the VSB lists.
Practice, gender, ethnicity
Those vetting the candidates face increasing calls to change the makeup of the Court of Appeals.
Of the court’s 10 current members, only three are women and only one is a person of color, The Virginian-Pilot reported. The 50 new applicants include 21 women and at least 13 persons of color.
In a letter sent to Virginia bar leaders April 19, six organizations and the head of a state teachers’ union asked them to recommend “demographically and professionally diverse lawyers” to the legislative committees that recommend names to the General Assembly, the paper reported.
Legislators have expressed the goal of diversifying the court not just in terms of ethnicity and gender, but also in regard to unrepresented regions and practice areas, including criminal defense and legal aid work.
New judges needed soon
Legislation expanding the Court of Appeals from 11 to 17 seats takes effect July 1, with the court’s new jurisdiction effective Jan. 1. Chief Judge Marla Decker has told legislators it would be helpful to have the new judges in place July 1 to address administrative and operational issues, a spokesperson said.
“These matters include hiring of the new judges’ staff, selecting and securing individual chambers in their localities (which must comply with state procurement regulations and can take at least three to six months to complete), setting up office equipment and IT configurations, completing orientation and training, and learning internal operating procedures,” the spokesperson said.
Moreover, Decker has indicated the new judges may be taking part in panel hearings in the fall to acclimate to the procedure.
Meanwhile, the Assembly has to consider who will replace those trial judges who move up to the Court of Appeals, according to Sen. Scott Surovell, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The 50 new applicants are:
Updated and corrected April 26 to show that Bryan K. Meals is a judge in Portsmouth.