Fifty-two Roanoke-area lawyers have asked the Senate Judiciary Committee for more women candidates to be appointed to circuit and general district judgeships in their circuit.
In a letter to the committee sent May 14, the group noted that only one woman, Judge Diane McQ. Strickland, ever has been named to the 23rd Circuit Court, and she retired in 2002.
The 23rd Judicial Circuit covers courts in Roanoke, Roanoke County and Salem.
Additionally, the circuit’s general district court currently has one woman, Judge Jacqueline Talevi, on the bench. Talevi, who has served on the general district court for more than two decades and is now the court’s chief judge, declined to comment for this story.
The signing attorneys, who included leaders from all of Roanoke’s major law firms, state that the makeup of the court is not reflective of the local bar associations. The Roanoke Bar Association is made up of 26% women, while the female membership of the Salem/Roanoke County Bar Association is 36%.
“A majority of the women attorneys in the Twenty-Third Circuit have been practicing actively in the Virginia court system for over 10 years and some over 20 years. This circuit does not lack experienced, exceptionally gifted women attorneys in all areas of practice,” the letter states.
The group makes the claim that rather than advancing to other positions, the “apparent trend” for women appointed to the bench is to place them on the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court bench. That court currently has four women judges and one male judge.
“On this court no female judge has been moved up to the circuit court bench when they have applied, and they have applied,” the group claims. “In essence, female judges are dead-ended on the J&DR bench, while the male judges use that court as a springboard to the circuit court bench and beyond.”
The letter goes on to state that “a conclusion can be drawn that women attorneys are considered appropriate to the J&DR bench because dealing with child and family matters is ‘women’s work.’”
Sen. John S. Edwards, D-Roanoke, disputed that claim.
“I think the J&DR court is an extremely important court,” Edwards said. “It is not a ‘women’s court.’ It is a family court in effect.”
Edwards, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, noted that the Senate has only had a Democratic majority since 2020, meaning that for the 22 prior years, Republicans had control over selecting judges. Edwards said that since 2020, only one vacancy has come on the circuit court in the 23rd Circuit, which was filled by former delegate and J&DR Judge Onzlee Ware. Ware is the first Black circuit court judge in Roanoke.
“We’re committed as a party to making sure that we include geographic diversity, gender and racial diversity as well with the new judges to be appointed,” Edwards said.
Former Del. Greg Habeeb, R-Salem, said that in his time in the General Assembly the Republican majority also was focused on selecting a diverse group of judges.
“We were very committed at the statewide level first, as a caucus, to picking the best judges but also making sure that they reflected the diversity of the citizens and of the bar,” Habeeb said. “So we actually made it a point of identifying qualified competent, top-notch candidates who also were diverse candidates, gender and otherwise.” Habeeb noted that when he was first elected in 2011, Talevi was the only woman judge serving in the 23rd Circuit.
While Habeeb acknowledged “great strides” were made at the state level in diversity, some issues still remain, namely at the circuit court level.
“Circuit-wide, there’s been a significant move towards diversity, with the one big obvious failure, which is gender diversity – and frankly almost any kind of diversity – at the circuit court level,” Habeeb said. Presently, Ware is the only minority of any kind serving on the 23rd circuit court.
The lack of upward mobility for women judges can affect the pool of applicants legislators draw from. Roanoke attorney Nancy Reynolds, the first signee of the letter, said in a statement that “women lawyers consider applications an exercise in futility.”
She said, “Women in the community do not see anyone who looks like them on the bench.”
Reynolds added, “Our circuit court and general district court benches do not reflect the community. And our young women lawyers and daughters mark that aspiration off their lists of career choices.”
Habeeb echoed a similar sentiment, calling the process of judicial selection “complicated” because legislators can only select from those who have applied for judgeships.
“Depending on which way you look at it, either the General Assembly has had no gender diverse options or the General Assembly has created a situation where gender diverse candidates don’t put their names in,” Habeeb said.
The Virginia Women Attorneys Association wrote a letter to leaders in early 2020 to recommend candidates for the open position in the 23rd Circuit court. The court highly recommended two women, Melissa Friedman and Judge Leisa K. Ciaffone. The position eventually went to Ware, who the group recommended. Friedman and Ciaffone both now serve on the J&DR court.
“I understand the frustration. I think it’s real and it’s legitimate,” Habeeb said. “The results aren’t reflecting the diversity of the population or the bar. And someone’s going to have to figure out a way to address it.”
It is unclear when the legislature could address the gender imbalance in the circuit. The only judge in the circuit that is up for re-election in 2022 is general district court judge Thomas Roe, who has not announced any plans to step aside.
“In the future, I’m sure we will certainly consider a diverse group of applicants for any vacancies that occur in the circuit court. Right now, we don’t have one,” Edwards said.
Calling the appointment of judges “a very serious undertaking,” Reynolds wants the court to begin to look more like the bar and the Roanoke Valley community.
“Very capable and exemplary women attorneys have applied for positions on the circuit and general district court benches and have been cast aside,” Reynolds said. “These are the reasons why many in the legal community opted to no longer keep our mouths shut and our heads down.”