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General Assembly interviews dozens of judges

Virginia General Assembly

Within weeks of kicking off the 2023 regular session, the Virginia General Assembly elected or reelected 34 judges to fill impending vacancies on the bench and reelected two members on the Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission, or JIRC.

The Virginia House Committee for Courts of Justice and the Senate Committee on the Judiciary jointly interviewed 35 candidates last December.

One recurring theme? The issue of recovery and the success of nascent court programs that focus on drug rehabilitation and mental health.

Del. Jeffrey Campbell, R-Smyth County, praised Judge Hugh Harrell from Southwest Virginia’s 27th Circuit Court for his reputation as an innovator for his drug court program.

“I call it recovery court, because we don’t do drugs,” Harrell responded, garnering chuckles. “I love it, it’s the pinnacle of my career.”

Harrell described how COVID’s impact on participants prompted him to start weekly exercise sessions and individual discussions with them about recovery — all in the courtroom.

“It’s been a privilege to be able to spend time with these folks and it’s rejuvenated my compassion,” he told the committee. “We had left physical fitness out of the recovery equation; introducing it has dramatically improved their recoveries.”

And while Winchester Circuit Presiding Judge Alexander R. Iden didn’t have stats for the drug court he started in 2016, he thought it was going well.

“It’s been a change for me to go from prosecuting and not getting to know them to the drug court experience where I learn the intimate details of their lives and what’s gone wrong and how things can go right,” he said.

When asked by Sen. Joseph D. Morrissey, D-Chesterfield, if his court had enough resources after the 2020 expansion of drug court eligibility, Iden said that, despite having great local partnerships, they don’t.

“What we don’t have is residential placement,” he said. “We’re sending folks to different parts of state.”

Henrico County Circuit Court Chief Judge John Marshall described his work with the Henrico drug court as “most rewarding.” In his Community Corrections Alternative Program, or CCAP, those who fail the “under advisement” conditions of a drug possession felony are given another chance to dismiss the charge with more intensive supervision and drug testing.

Since its inception in 2018, Marshall reported that 31 have completed the CCAP program.

Prince William County was one of the last two jurisdictions in Virginia without a drug court until Circuit Court Chief Judge Kimberly A. Irving started one in 2022 that meets every other Friday. She told Morrissey that it’s tough to gauge the program’s statistical efficacy because “there’s no one-size fits all.”

Having started the only mental health docket in the state, Judge Rupen R. Shah of the Augusta General District Court for the 25th District of Virginia beamed with pride as he described how the program’s evaluation, counseling and services have helped addicts and those with mental challenges merge back into the community.

Scoring the judges

Unstated but understood that recovery isn’t limited to those with mental or drug problems, the legislators then asked some of the judges about their low evaluation scores.

Morrissey pointed out that Shah was ranked third lowest for patience, fairness, courtesy, impartiality and faithfulness to and knowledge of the law.

While Shah took full responsibility to improve, he noted that the average number of cases to be heard in a small courtroom make the Augusta General District Court a “logistical nightmare.”

Portsmouth City Circuit Court Chief Judge Johnny E. Morrison, meanwhile, said he was “taken aback” by his low evaluation scores. He attributed it to the pain caused by kidney disease for which he had a transplant in 2021. The kidney donor? His next-door neighbor, Del. Don L. Scott Jr., D-Portsmouth. Morrison said he refused opiates for the pain because of his experiences with addicts on the drug court.

Morrissey also asked Portsmouth Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court Judge Bryan K. Meals about being second from the bottom in the 2023 evaluations with the lowest scores in 11 of 17 categories. When Meals acknowledged that he showed his frustration with unprepared attorneys, Del. Robert B. Bell, R-Albemarle, reminded him that attorneys in lower trial courts often have limited opportunity to prepare or have difficult clients.

Fourth from last in several categories, Chesterfield General District Court’s Presiding Judge James O’Connell III was disappointed in his recent evaluations and pointed out that his 2016 evaluations were better. The legislators seemed satisfied that O’Connell aspired to do better in what they recognized was a high-volume court.

Supreme Court of Virginia

  • Cleo E. Powell

Court of Appeals of Virginia

  • Mary Grace O’Brien
  • Richard Atlee Jr.

Circuit Court Judges

  • Johnny E. Morrison, Third Judicial Circuit
  • Gary A. Mills, Seventh Judicial Circuit
  • Richard H. Rizk, Ninth Judicial Circuit
  • Dennis M. Martin, Eleventh Judicial Circuit
  • John Marshall, Fourteenth Judicial Circuit
  • Gordon F. Willis, Fifteenth Judicial Circuit
  • Cheryl V. Higgins, Sixteenth Judicial Circuit
  • Stephen C. Shannon, Nineteenth Judicial Circuit
  • Douglas L. Fleming Jr., Twentieth Judicial Circuit
  • Penney S. Azcarate, Twentieth Judicial Circuit
  • Alexander R. Iden, Twenty-sixth Judicial Circuit
  • Hugh Lee Harrell, Twenty-seventh Judicial Circuit
  • Tracy C. Hudson, Thirty-first Judicial Circuit
  • Kimberly A. Irving, Thirty-first Judicial Circuit

General District Court

  • Alfred W. Bates, Fifth Judicial District
  • Corry N. Smith, Eighth Judicial District
  • James J. O’Connell, Twelfth Judicial District
  • Susan J. Stoney, Nineteenth Judicial District
  • John A. Kassabian, Nineteenth Judicial District
  • Scott R. Geddes, Twenty-third Judicial District
  • Rupen R. Shah, Twenty-fifth Judicial District
  • Paul A. Tucker, Twenty-fifth Judicial District

Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court

  • Larry D. Willis Sr., First Judicial District
  • Bryan K. Meals, Third Judicial District
  • Stan D. Clark, Fifth Judicial District
  • Shannon O. Hoehl, Fifteenth Judicial District
  • Julian W. Johnson, Fifteenth Judicial District
  • Constance H. Frogale, Eighteenth Judicial District
  • Divani R. Nadaraja, Nineteenth Judicial District
  • Pamela L. Brooks, Twentieth Judicial District
  • Melissa N. Cupp, Twentieth Judicial District

Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission

  • Humes J. Franklin III
  • Shannon O. Hoehl

Judge Larry Willis Sr. of the Chesapeake Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court echoed O’Connell’s explanation that his own low evaluation scores were partly due to an overloaded court docket.

Second chances

Court of Appeals of Virginia Judge Mary Grace O’Brien explained to the committee why she wanted to remain on the appellate bench. Morrissey then asked if she saw any potential policy obstacles to a program he proposed that would offer prisoners with lengthy sentences a “second-chance review” by a circuit court judge after 20 years.

“I can’t foresee a policy problem, a lot of things can change in 20 years,” she replied. “I think that our court would examine a circuit judge’s second chance review decision under an abuse of discretion standard with deference to the trial court.”

Judicial transparency

The committee also interviewed two individuals for reappointment to the Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission, or JIRC.

Morrissey queried Fredericksburg Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court Judge Shannon O. Hoehl about her philosophy on whether JIRC should provide legislators with unfettered access to discipline records, such as full complaints, for judges seeking reappointment.

Hoehl said her philosophy was “we have to follow the law to the T.”

“I believe that JIRC is conscientious and believe steadfastly that is exactly what we are doing — following the law as it is written,” she told the committee. “We absolutely respect this body’s ability to change the law, if that’s what they deem fit to do. If it does change, it will be our position to be in compliance with that law at all times.”

Staunton attorney Humes J. Franklin III offered a similar answer when asked by Morrissey if the JIRC should give legislators the “full flavor” of judicial complaints.

“JIRC is required to follow the statute, it’s not a matter of philosophy,” he said.