Alexandria’s Democratic state legislative delegation is getting a lesson in “majority rules” from Republicans over the appointment of a local Circuit Court judge.
The vacancy occurred on July 1, when Judge Alfred Swersky retired. When he announced his intention to retire earlier this year, the Alexandria Bar Association began the process of identifying a replacement.
“It’s a process that, in varying forms, has been used throughout the Commonwealth for a very long time,” said Thomas K. Cullen, the president of the Alexandria Bar Association.
“We asked for applications from those who were interested, we interviewed the two applicants who expressed interest, we rated those applicants, selected the person that we believed was the most qualified and the Bar Association voted on that applicant.
"We then submitted the name of that candidate to our local state legislative delegation and they conducted interviews. They agreed with our selection and submitted that recommendation to the governor.
"Now, a group of people who do not live in the city and who were not elected by the citizens of the city are going to interview other candidates. This is ridiculous.”
Members of the state legislative delegation agreed with Cullen. Delegate Brian Moran (D-46) who sits on the Courts and Justice Committee, took the lead on interviewing candidates and presenting the candidate to the governor.
“Our local bar association recommended Judge Nolan Dawkins and, after interviewing both of the candidates, the entire legislative delegation agreed,” Moran said. “Judge Dawkins is highly qualified and should be appointed. This is a local appointment and the decision should be made locally. I certainly would not presume to go to Virginia Beach or Scott County and pick a judge there. This is strictly politically motivated.”
Democratic Governor Mark Warner, an Alexandrian, was apparently prepared to appoint Dawkins when members of the Republican Caucus informed him that they would not support the appointment in January when the General Assembly reconvenes and that they wanted to interview other candidates.
“The Constitution says that judges are appointed by the House and Senate,” said Delegate David Albo (R-42) who is from Springfield. At Moran’s invitation, Albo sat in on the interviews that Alexandria’s legislative delegation conducted.
“There really is no other process. I was happy to sit in on the interviews and found Judge Dawkins to be highly qualified. I supported his appointment but I am only one of 64 members of the Republican Caucus. There are some members of our caucus who remember that they were not included in these decisions when the Democrats were in charge and feel that, as we are now the majority Party, we have a right to make these selections and that’s what we are going to do.”
BOB MCDONNELL, the chair of the Courts and Justice Committee, has appointed a five-person panel to conduct the interviews. The members of that committee are McDonnell, Virginia Beach; Morgan Griffith, Salem; Terry Kilgore, Scott County; Albo, Springfield and Jean Marie Devolites, Vienna. All are Republicans.
“All of us are attorneys and we will interview the two candidates who the Bar Association interviewed and who were interviewed by the city’s legislative delegation, but we also want to interview other candidates,” Albo said.
That baffles Cullen. “No one knows who these other candidates are,” he said. “If they have other candidates, why don’t they submit those names to the local bar association and let us look at them. I am not a member of any political party but I think this is motivated by the fact that the Republicans are mad because there are no Republican elected officials at all anymore in the city.
"I am very disappointed in the Republicans and in the governor. The governor should have gone ahead and made the appointment. He, too, is ignoring the wishes of the citizens of Alexandria in this matter.”
ACCORDING TO a spokesperson for the governor, “The governor has agreed not to make any appointment until the Republicans have conducted their own interviews.”
Those interviews will be conducted some time in August. “We were going to hold them on July 28, but Judge Dawkins is going to be out of town,” Albo said. “I told him that we would wait until he gets back. I am doing this to protect qualified candidates like Judge Dawkins.
"The governor could make an interim appointment, that person could leave his or her job and then not be confirmed by the legislature in January. That’s not fair. We will conduct these interviews, select a candidate, poll the caucus and let the governor know that if he appoints the candidate we have selected, that person will be confirmed in January.”
State Del. Marian Van Landingham (D-45) is not happy with what has occurred. “In all of the years that I have been a member of the legislature, this has never happened,” she said. “Even when the Democrats were the majority party, we never went against the wishes of a local delegation. When the delegation was split, we had to choose, but we never just ignored them. This is ridiculous.”
"What is happening here is ridiculous," agreed State Sen. Patricia S. "Patsy" Ticer. "There is a separation of powers for a reason and the application of a litmus test when selecting judges has made this process more and more political.
"Last year in Martinsville, after that local bar association and the local delegation had selected an appropriate candidate, the majority party interfered and selected someone who was not remotely qualified but had the right political affiliations. That could happen here."
WHEN THE interviews do occur, Albo said that members of Alexandria’s delegation will be invited to sit in on the interviews. “I certainly will ask them for their preference but they will not have a vote,” he said.
Both Van Landingham and Moran said that they would not participate. “We have done our job and made our recommendation,” Van Landingham said.
Former Mayor Kerry J. Donley, said that this is just another example of interference in local decision-making. “This is typical,” he said. “The appointment of a judge is clearly a local decision and should be made by people who live here, not by people who live in the far southwestern part of the state.”
As to candidates, “Anyone who thinks they’re qualified to be a Circuit Court judge and who lives in Alexandria, should get in touch with me,” Albo said.
Judge Dawkins declined to comment on the process.