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The Roanoke Times | File 2009
Sunday, April 28, 2013
Virginia, home of the oldest legislative body in the Western Hemisphere and the mother of presidents, has a flawed process for selecting judges. Virginia is one of two states where election of the judiciary is entirely a legislative prerogative. While the process, by and large, has produced good judges, it is rife with subjective considerations that have little to do with whether the nominees are the best qualified to serve.
During the 1990s, two members of the House of Delegates led a charge to reform the process. Republican Andy Guest and Democrat Whitt Clement introduced bills to require more public input and a more objective examination of the qualifications of judicial candidates. Year after year, the bills were introduced, and year after year, they failed. Now is the time to resurrect the idea.
In 2012, one potential appointee for a district court judgeship garnered significant discussion on the floor of the House of Delegates. All who listened to that post-midnight debate had to wonder whether they were witnessing the vetting of a judicial candidate or a Salem witch trial. This year, there was discussion on the floor of the Senate about whether judicial vacancies would actually be filled. The argument was driven not by the nominees or their qualifications, nor about whether the positions should be funded, but by the fact that political expediency required someone other than the General Assembly to make the appointments. Talk about transparency.
The decision about creating and/or filling judgeships should be based upon objective criteria such as caseload statistics, population and geographic area served. The focus on who fills those judgeships needs to revolve around experience, temperament and merit.
Virginia should join the majority of states that have judicial candidates evaluated by local and state bar organizations. Lawyers familiar with a candidate's abilities and temperament should have input in this critical decision. The process also should allow more citizen input, not only at the judicial hearings before the courts of justice committees, but at the level of nominating candidates.
Electing judges is serious work. For many Virginians, their one day in court is their sole opportunity not only to obtain justice but to see how government and our judicial system work. They deserve nothing less than assurance that the best qualified, not the best connected, are selected for the bench.
Thomas Jefferson, while minister to France during the Constitutional Convention, wrote to James Madison that he was most impressed by the independence of the judiciary established in the Constitution. More than two centuries later, we still do not live up to this expectation. We need to jealously guard its integrity in order to ensure the public that justice will be done. We can do better.
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