The Virginia Court of Appeals building in downtown Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Democrats in the Virginia House and Senate met privately Wednesday to choose finalists for eight open positions on the Virginia Court of Appeals, prompting GOP lawmakers to accuse the party of breaking tradition by holding secret group interviews.
“I can’t think of a single instance in which we’ve had a judicial candidate come and appear before our caucus to be interviewed and make a pitch,” said Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, who chaired the Senate Courts committee before Democrats won the majority in 2019.
“I think we want judges who are going to be independent, who are going to adhere to the law, who are going to be good judges — not beholden to one caucus or the other.”
Democrats insisted they were taking the same basic approach to judicial appointments as the GOP did when they controlled the General Assembly, noting that the GOP also met with candidates before publicly narrowing down a list of finalists for public interviews.
“I have been personally interviewing people for months as have other senators,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, in a text message. “The public certification interviews will be of the eight finalists for eight spots.”
The GOP responded that, when they were in charge, discussions with potential candidate took place on a one-on-one basis and with members of both parties. They said they never held group interviews to narrow down a list of finalists. “Never happened in the history of the General Assembly,” said Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City.
Democrats called it a distinction without a difference, but not all Democrats were on board with the approach. As he left the Senate chamber to attend the meeting, Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, said that while he was participating, he disagreed with the decision to conduct the interviews in private. The meeting included Democratic members of the House and Senate judicial committees, according to attendees.
Regardless of the party in charge, judicial selections for the state’s higher courts are intensely partisan. And while interviews are held in public, the ruling party’s ultimate picks are typically hammered out behind closed doors in caucus meetings with little in the way of public comment or discussion.
This year’s appointments to the Court of Appeals have drawn more attention than usual because earlier this year Democrats voted to add six new seats to the 11-judge court as part of a plan to expand its jurisdiction to provide a by-right appeal in all civil and criminal actions. The legislation will end Virginia’s status as the only state in the country where there is no guaranteed right to appellate review from the trial court level.
Republicans accused Democrats of attempting to “pack the court,” a criticism Democrats brushed off, noting that proposals to expand the court have drawn bi-partisan support within the state’s legal community.
In addition to the six new seats, Democrats in the General Assembly have two vacancies to fill. One comes after a recent retirement. A second has been open for two years after Democrats in the House and Senate were unable to agree on a candidate.
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