Commentary

The Virginia Supreme Court won’t let us down

November 15, 2021 12:02 am

The Supreme Court of Virginia in Richmond, Va. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For The Virginia Mercury)

By Thomas Wolf, Esq.

This is for my fellow Democrats who fear having Virginia’s redistricting map determined by the Virginia Supreme Court, all of whose members were elected by a Republican-controlled house of the General Assembly. Don’t worry.

Having practiced before that court, interacted with its members in person, and read their opinions for more than four decades, I feel I know the justices pretty well. These are not “partisan Republican hacks in robes,” as some have alleged. 

Not even close.

Virginians can accurately state that their judges are better than those of most states. That’s because our process for selecting judges is better than most states and we have a proud tradition of selecting good judges, not just political cronies, to sit on our courts. To get a seat on any court, a nominee must receive a majority vote from each chamber of the Virginia General Assembly. Though party affiliation is often a factor, there is a long history of choosing judges based on their merits, not their ideology.  

Even when the process has become blatantly political, as when the Republican-controlled General Assembly refused to reappoint Justice Jane Roush because her recess appointment by Gov. Terry McAuliffe had supposedly been without adequate genuflection to Republican bosses (although she had been initially put forth by the Republican chair of the House Courts of Justice Committee who called her “the best Circuit Court judge in Virginia”) Republicans replaced her with a member of the Court of Appeals, Stephen McCullough, who was widely respected in both parties for his intellect and his integrity. No one could consider McCullough a purely political appointment. His written opinions since elevation to the court have borne out the validity of his selection.

Chief Justice Donald Lemons and Justice William Mims are other good examples. Both were political before going on the bench. Lemons was supported for a seat on the court by his former law partner, Pat McSweeney, the controversial chair of the Republican Party of Virginia who loudly defended the Confederate flag.  Mims was elected as a Republican to both the House of Delegates and the state Senate, and was later selected by the Republican-controlled General Assembly to replace Attorney General Bob McDonnell, who resigned to run for governor.  Yet Lemons and Mims have both demonstrated over time and beyond argument that they are competent, fair-minded jurists just trying to interpret and apply the law honestly, even when they don’t like it. You may not always agree with their opinions, but no one could accuse them of trying to bend the law to serve a political credo.

I know that, far from being ideologues who would manipulate the redistricting process to benefit their Republican friends, the current justices of the Virginia Supreme Court are honest jurists of the highest ethical standards, and dedicated to carrying out their sacred duties to the very best of their abilities. Therefore, although I am a staunch Democrat and believe that our immediate past president, who openly attempted to overthrow the federal government and to thwart the 2020 electoral results in many states, is the greatest threat to American democracy in my lifetime, I have every confidence that, to a person, the Virginia Supreme Court will do the right thing to insure the redistricting map is drawn competently, fairly and free of gerrymandering.  

Many hardcore Democrats feel that Virginia’s redistricting constitutional amendment denied them the hard-won opportunity to do to Republicans what Republicans did to Democrats — redraw political districts for the express purpose of gaining a massive political advantage.  But Virginians voted overwhelmingly (66 percent) to put an end to that cycle.  

We know that gerrymandering districts to make them safe for one party or the other is one of the root causes of the never-ending vitriolic political strife in this country. With election of their party’s nominee assured in their district, politicians have no incentive to appeal to the moderate middle. Worried only about challenges from the fringe, they focus on appealing to the most extreme members of their party.

Virginians are sick of that model and the hypocrisy and corruption it breeds. So, foregoing the chance for their own party to be assured victory through re-districting, a strong majority of Virginians demanded that the voters themselves choose their representatives, rather than have the representatives corrupt the democratic process by choosing their voters.

Virginia’s Constitution requires an impartial redistricting. I’m sure we can count on our Supreme Court to carry that out faithfully.

Thomas Wolf has practiced law in Richmond for 43 years.  He heads the Richmond office of a regional law firm and has served as an adjunct professor at the University of Richmond School of Law since 1986.

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