The Virginia General Assembly elected eight new judges to the Court of Appeals on Aug. 10, completing a historic expansion of the court and ushering in new diversity in race, gender and background.
The eight new judges, along with their former positions and locations, are:
The eight candidates were announced by leadership in the Senate and the House of Delegates on Aug. 9. The House Courts Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee reviewed the candidates on the morning of Aug. 10 before the legislature voted on the candidates that afternoon.
In a release, the House Democratic Caucus said the candidates “will diversify the Court to more adequately reflect the makeup of the Commonwealth of Virginia.” Among the new judges are four Black judges and four women. Callins, Causey and Chaney will become the third, fourth and fifth Black women ever to serve on the Court of Appeals.
Additionally, the candidates represent a diverse background of experiences. Both the House and Senate committees noted Chaney’s master’s degree in business could be unique among Court of Appeals judges. Causey’s role with the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society and Lorish’s role as a public defender were also highlighted by the committees as diverse compared to the usual background of judges.
Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond law school who tracks the judicial nomination process, said the General Assembly “substantially accomplished what it wanted to do in terms of diversity.”
“That goes a long way along the various lines of satisfying questions about ethnic, gender and experiential diversity,” Tobias said.
The large block of new appointments, the largest since the court’s creation in the 1980s, comes as a result of the General Assembly’s expanding the court from 11 to 17 judges as part of a plan to broaden the court’s jurisdiction to guarantee a right of appeal to all civil and criminal decisions.
Two additional seats were open due to the elevation of Judge Rossie Alston to a federal judgeship and the upcoming retirement of Judge William G. Petty later this year.
“This is a historic opportunity to elect eight people to the Court of Appeals of Virginia,” Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, said at the start of the Senate Judiciary Committee meeting.
The expansion drew opposition from Republican legislators over concerns that expansion would dramatically alter the partisan makeup of the court.
During the nomination process, Republican legislators critiqued the closed-door discussions held by Democrats to narrow the applicant field down from more than 80 applicants to the eight nominees. During the Senate Judiciary Committee meeting, Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, expressed frustration about the lack of information he was provided, saying that Republican members had minimal time to review candidate information before the committee met.
The majority of Republicans in the legislature did not vote for the judges. In keeping with tradition, rather than vote against a judge, the legislators chose not to vote when the nominees were on the floor to show their disapproval with the selection process.
Despite the back-and-forth among lawmakers, the committee meetings were courteous, with candidates facing little to no roadblocks to being deemed qualified. One member of the public spoke in both committees against the nomination of Ortiz, claiming that as a circuit judge he ignored conflicts of interest related to Inova, which he represented at a private law firm before becoming a judge. Ortiz told delegates that he takes conflicts of interest “very seriously” and that he checked with the Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission to ensure he followed the rules.
The only other comment during the House Courts Committee meeting came from Sen. Lionel Spruill, D-Chesapeake, who spoke in favor of Fulton. He called Fulton, who has served on the Norfolk Circuit Court for more than 20 years, “the best of the best.”
Seven of the new judges will start their eight-year terms on Sept. 1. Callins will start her term on Nov. 1 after Petty retires. During the House Courts Committee meeting, Callins said she would be ready “at a minimum by Nov. 1,” as she has to “wind up” her law practice prior to serving on the court.
With the court essentially doubling in size in a short period of time, Tobias said it is important to consider the new dynamics of the court.
“That’ll be interesting to watch; how the new people work with people who have been on the court for some time. And I think that’ll be a challenge,” Tobias said. “Justice Byron White on the [U.S.] Supreme Court used to say ‘we got one new member and it just discombobulated the whole Supreme Court.’ So now you’ve got eight new members, so it will be interesting to see what happens.”
Tobias also said there “may have to be some tinkering” with how the court operates under the new appeal of right rules.
“It’s assumed there will be more appeals, but how many more is not clear. It’s also not clear how difficult it will be to resolve those appeals and how many judges it will take,” Tobias said.
The promotion of Fulton and Ortiz leaves two open circuit court positions to be filled. Since the General Assembly recessed without adjourning, the legislature maintains control over filling those openings.