The Virginia General Assembly ended its regular 2022 session on March 12 without electing judges to fill two openings on the Supreme Court of Virginia. Legislators did elect 30 trial court judges late in the session. They also clashed over a senator’s opposition to a retired substitute judge.
The Supreme Court impasse was part of a far wider dispute over appointments to state boards and commissions, according to Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Hot Springs. Democrats had blocked four of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s nominees for the state parole board in an apparent payback for GOP rejection of 11 people nominated for state posts by former Gov. Ralph Northam.
“We didn’t come up with an agreement on a process,” Deeds said, referring to talks between the parties about filling the two Supreme Court seats. Deeds is co-chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Although the two parties share power at the Capitol, picking justices proved not as simple as the GOP getting one pick and the Democrats another.
“It’s pretty easy to figure it out, but it gets caught up with all the other issues over appointments,” Deeds said on March 14. “At some point, you’ve got to sit down and figure it out, but that hasn’t happened yet.”
The legislature may return in a matter of weeks to face its unfinished business, including the budget and the Supreme Court openings.
The Assembly elected 30 trial court judges on March 9:
Circuit Court Judges
General District Court Judges
Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court Judges
In addition, the Assembly put Colonial Heights attorney Steven B. Novey on the circuit bench in Chesterfield County. He will replace Circuit Judge Lynn Brice, who failed to win reappointment after complaints about her service. Novey’s election was delayed for several days after Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, initially hesitated on his candidacy, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Alger, the Page County commonwealth’s attorney named to a general district seat, was said to be only the second Page County native ever elected to a Virginia judgeship, according to the Page Valley News.
The 13 candidates interviewed on March 8 by the Assembly’s courts committees for the two Supreme Court vacancies were:
Of those interviewed, Athey, Frucci, Quagliato, Shah, Showalter and White were not evaluated by Virginia bar groups in the process organized by the Virginia State Bar.
Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax County, came under fire from two practicing lawyers as he stepped out of his role as legislator to publicly complain about a retired substitute judge.
The exchange came as the Assembly courts committees summoned two retired judges to defend their qualifications. Petersen criticized how retired Spotsylvania County Judge Joseph J. Ellis handled business litigation that ended with $54,000 in sanctions against Petersen and his client.
Speaking “as a private citizen” and pledging to recuse himself from any vote on Ellis’ re-certification, Petersen attacked what he termed the “arbitrary nature” of Ellis’ rulings in that and another case. Petersen said Ellis ignored a prior scheduling order to continue the trial and reopen discovery in the business litigation.
“One of the things that shocked me was how a substitute — in this case, retired — judge could come in and just ignore what the existing orders in the case were, and have no accountability. None,” Petersen told his colleagues at the March 8 hearing.
Petersen also condemned Ellis’ handling of a protracted divorce in which the wife lost equity in the couple’s home. Petersen later appeared as the wife’s counsel to recover some of her interest in the property.
Fredericksburg lawyer Mary E. White urged legislators to allow Ellis to remain on the recall list of judges. But she reserved her strongest words for Petersen.
“I think he should be ashamed of himself before this Assembly to take a personal vendetta and take it against a judge that has served this commonwealth respectfully and honorably for 20-some years,” White said.
Jeannie P. Dahnk of Fredericksubrg, a former president of the Virginia State Bar, also criticized Petersen.
“Our process — the review of the performance of judges retired and sitting — is not and should not be a place for elected members of the legislature to exact personal vendettas because they dislike a ruling of a judge,” Dahnk said.
Stung by the suggestion of a conflict of interest, Petersen said all he sought to do was to relate his experience with Ellis.
“I don’t have a personal vendetta against him. I don’t have a personal vendetta against anybody,” Petersen said on March 14, speaking with Virginia Lawyers Weekly.
Deeds declined to comment on Petersen’s actions in opposing Ellis.
The Assembly kept Ellis on the list of judges certified to continue serving on the recall list, along with retired Fairfax County Judge Charles J. Maxfield. Maxfield had also been called to defend his service before the courts committees.
All told, the legislators certified eight newly retired or soon-to-be retired judges and 86 retired judges for recall service.S