RICHMOND — Legislators representing the Roanoke Valley remain divided on who should fill the impending vacancy on the Roanoke Circuit Court as a General Assembly panel interviewed two candidates on Friday.
The Senate Judiciary Committee and House Judicial Panel interviewed Roanoke Juvenile and Domestic Relations Judges Frank Rogers and Onzlee Ware. Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, supports Rogers, while Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, backs Ware.
Meanwhile, Roanoke Valley Republicans wanted to see Roanoke Juvenile and Domestic Relations Judge Leisa Kube Ciaffone elevated to the circuit court. But Ciaffone did not receive an interview.
The legislature plans to elect new judges before the session ends March 7.
Rogers was a partner at Mundy Rogers & Associates before he took the bench in 2015. He also served as a part-time substitute judge for six years prior to his appointment.
Ware served in the House of Delegates from 2004 to 2014, and Rasoul succeeded him. He was in private practice before taking the bench in 2014.
Ware, who is black, said elected bodies in Roanoke, such as the city council, reflect the diversity of the city. The legislature has the ability to create diverse court benches, he said.
“The bench does not reflect the city of Roanoke,” Ware told the joint panel.
Ware has the support of members of the influential Virginia Legislative Black Caucus. If chosen, he would be the first black circuit court judge in Roanoke.
Ciaffone worked as an attorney with Gentry, Locke, Rakes and Moore until 2001, then opened her own practice until, in 2013, she was named a judge.
Last month, the Roanoke Bar Association and the Salem/Roanoke County Bar Association endorsed Ciaffone for the circuit court position.
In 2016, Ciaffone was one of two candidates considered for a circuit court position in the 23rd District. Roanoke Valley lawmakers backed promoting Judge Chris Clemens from general district to circuit court, saying Ciaffone would get the nod for the next opening.
Edwards and Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, issued a joint statement in 2016 indicating that Ciaffone would get the next circuit court position. Now Edwards is saying he didn’t recall making that statement.
On the Senate floor shortly before judicial interviews began, Suetterlein criticized the decision of the joint panel not to interview Ciaffone.
The divide over the three candidates has extended into the legal community in the Roanoke Valley, where lawyers have been penning op-eds in The Roanoke Times to make their case for who should fill the vacancy. One op-ed signed by 22 female attorneys highlighted that Ciaffone would be the second woman to be a circuit court judge in Roanoke.
The House and Senate panel also interviewed Pulaski County Commonwealth’s Attorney Mike Fleenor for a vacancy on the circuit court in Montgomery County following an unusual move by the House of Delegates to not reappoint Judge Marc Long to another eight-year term.
Long had low scores in several categories in his 2019 Virginia Supreme Court judicial performance evaluation report.
The joint panel interviewed candidates for several other positions.
Two prospects interviewed for vacancies in the 25th Judicial Circuit, an area that stretches from Craig County north to Augusta County, and Alleghany County east to Rockbridge County. They are General District Judge Christopher Russell and Anne Reed, chief deputy commonwealth’s attorney in Staunton. Robin Mayer, the managing attorney for Blue Ridge Legal Services in Lexington, is being considered for the general district court.
Michael Doucette, a former prosecutor and executive director for the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys, interviewed for a spot on the bench in the 24th Judicial Circuit, which includes Bedford County and Lynchburg.
In far Southwest Virginia, Juvenile and Domestic Relations Judge Ron Elkins was interviewed for a seat in the 30th Circuit Court. Wise County Commonwealth’s Attorney Chuck Slemp is being considered for a general district court position.