General Assembly’s judicial interviews devolve into ‘s***show’

By: - February 10, 2021 1:59 pm
Virginia State Capitol

The Virginia State Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The General Assembly broke from its staid and often secretive approach to making judicial appointments this week when a hearing to interview candidates devolved into a spectacle that prompted one exasperated senator to let loose a string of expletives.

Lawmakers from the House and Senate were interviewing Katie Uston, the former assistant counsel at the Virginia State Bar, for a circuit court judgeship in Alexandria.

The proceedings are typically marked by subdued back-and-forths and softball questions like “why do you want to be a judge?” — with the real work of selecting candidates hammered out in private among lawmakers who represent the given judicial district.

In Uston’s case on Tuesday, however, Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, made clear he believed she was unqualified for the position, launching into a long line of questions probing her expertise in civil and criminal trials. Did she realize law had changed a lot in the decade since she’d last practiced criminal law? (Yes.) Had she ever served as a substitute judge? (No.) Had she ever argued a motion to suppress based on the Fourth Amendment? (No, but as a counsel at the Bar, she was familiar through her work investigating allegations of legal misconduct.)

Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, reads an obituary of the late Lt. Gov. John Hager as he sits at his desk before the floor session in the temporary Virginia Senate chamber inside the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond, VA Friday, August 28, 2020. (Pool photo by Bob Brown/ Richmond Times-Dispatch)

Lawmakers eventually cut Morrissey off, turning to a public hearing in which three people with longstanding complaints about the judiciary and the state bar spoke, and, at one point, interrogated, Uston.

“She’s privy to all kinds of secret information which she can use against people who come in as litigants or lawyers and people will never know it,” said Rhetta Daniel.

The tenor of the hearing visibly disturbed members of the committee, who pleaded with the co-chairman, Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, to rein in the proceedings.

“This is the absolute worst, John,” said Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth. “This is awful.”

A few minutes later, Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, was caught on a hot mic loudly repeating, “This is a f**king s***show.” (The comment was apparently edited out of the Senate’s video archive of the meeting before it was posted Wednesday morning.)

Morrissey said Wednesday he agreed the public comment period went off the rails, but said his questions were entirely appropriate and focused solely on her qualifications.

He also questioned whether Uston had sufficiently disclosed her connection to one of the lawmakers supporting her appointment, Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, whose law partner is Uston’s husband.

When the issue came up during the meeting, Simon said he had planned to mention it before Morrissey launched into his inquiry. He said there was no effort to keep the connection secret and noted Uston disclosed it in her ethics statement as well as in a questionnaire.

Lingering grudges, obscure protocol and a classic General Assembly judge fight

As for her qualifications, he said her background working for the state bar is a different than most appointees, but she came recommended by the bar associations who reviewed applicants on the local delegation’s behalf.

Simon noted Morrissey’s own history with Uston’s former employer, the Virginia State Bar, which revoked his law license  twice — most recently in 2018.

“I certainly understand Joe’s position,” Simon said. “I think you could make a straight-faced argument similar to what he’s saying, but it seems odd that someone who has been twice disbarred would key into a candidate from another part of the state.

“It does raise an eyebrow.”

Morrissey dismissed the suggestion he might harbor a grudge. “I’ve never met her before in my life — had nothing to do with me,” he said. “The story is very simple: Is she qualified? … I make no apologies about trying to get the best person on the bench.”

There were, however, plenty of apologies as the hearing concluded Tuesday.

“I’m sorry that we had what we had to deal with,” Edwards told Uston.

“That’s fine,” she replied.

McDougle, meanwhile, took to Twitter to apologize for using “inappropriate language to express my exasperation while I thought I was muted.”

But his regret, he said, extended only to his choice of words: “I stand by the sentiment I expressed.”

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.