Northam’s sunny budget rewrite roils Republicans with his proposed Court of Appeals expansion

By: - December 17, 2020 5:51 am

Gov. Ralph Northam at a press conference in October. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

In his optimistic midcourse revisions to Virginia’s two-year, $135 billion spending blueprint, Gov. Ralph Northam proposed hundreds of millions in new spending for vaccine deployment and pandemic response, including half a billion dollars for public schools upended by COVID-19.

It includes millions more to help hold off an oncoming wave of evictions resulting from job losses from the virus, bonuses for state employees and state-supported local personnel and to push broadband internet farther into underserved rural areas.

But he drew the wrath of Republicans for $5.1 million he proposes for adding four new judges to the 11-judge Virginia Court of Appeals to expand Virginians’ right to appeal trial court decisions. The cost of boosting the understaffed court brimming with Republican appointees represents four one-thousandths of 1 percent of the overall two-year budget.

Northam made his rosy recommendations Wednesday in a videoconference to members of the General Assembly’s budget-writing committees based on estimates showing Virginia faring better than most states and projecting revenue growth over the course of 2021. The proposals he submitted as COVID numbers continued to spike in Virginia and nationally are based on revised economic forecasts for $1.2 billion more revenue than in August’s forecast, just before the General Assembly convened a special session to revise a budget that had been ravaged by the pandemic just a few months after its passage last March.

The Democratic governor based much of his optimism for growth in the second year of the budget ― fiscal year 2022 which begins July 1 ― on the prospect that a significant share of the state’s population will have received new coronavirus vaccines now entering the market.

“While we believe an end to this crisis and a rebounding of our economy is in sight, we are not there yet,” Northam said in his comments to the House and Senate money committees.

In the penultimate year of the single, non-renewable four-year term to which Virginia uniquely limits its governors, Northam proposes putting $650 million into the state’s “rainy day” reserve fund. Another major chunk, more than $500, goes to K-12 public education to underwrite funding for local school districts, including bonuses for teachers and additional counselors.

But it was his proposal to add four seats on the state Court of Appeals that prompted complaints from legislative Republicans of a Democratic plot to “pack” the court with liberal appointees.

State Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Senate GOP caucus chairman Ryan McDougle of Hanover said Northam is trying to “politicize” Virginia’s judiciary and replicate what Democrats considered doing after President Donald Trump cemented a solid conservative U.S. Supreme Court majority with the October confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett, the third Trump nominee in his single four-year term.

“I will adamantly oppose this effort by the governor to appease and appeal to his party’s extreme left-wing,” McDougle said in a news release distributed by his caucus.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Kirk Cox of Colonial Heights, who was House speaker before last year’s Democratic legislative takeover, also anguished over the appellate court expansion in a statement released by his campaign.

Del. Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

“I recognize that additional capacity may be needed at the Court of Appeals, and I believe that civil cases merit review at the Court of Appeals,” he said. But he said that Northam and the Democratic House and Senate should not get to select the judges – something that was done for nearly 20 years by GOP-dominated legislatures in which Cox himself served. “The enactment date of any court expansion should be staggered and new judges should be appointed by a nonpartisan merit-based selection committee to ensure this does not become a partisan attempt to remake our well-respected Court of Appeals.”

The 2020 General Assembly adopted a resolution that tasked the Judicial Council of Virginia with studying the appeals court’s organization and jurisdiction. Among the justifications the resolution asserts for a possible expansion, it notes that “Virginia has been the only state in the United States without a guaranteed right of appeal in criminal cases for over a decade and has recently become the only remaining state in the United States without a guaranteed right to appeal in all other cases.”

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]