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Kemler Takes Seat on Circuit Court

After a protracted fight, Alexandria gets its judge.

In a ceremonial hearing on March 17 at the Alexandria courthouse, Lisa Bondareff Kemler, a partner in the Alexandria law firm of Zwerling & Kemler, was sworn in as a presiding judge for Alexandria's circuit court. Chief Judge Donald Haddock presided over the court session, which concluded in Judge Kemler donning her judicial robe and taking a place as the junior member of the circuit court.

Judge Haddock made a passing reference to the two-year controversy that led to the swearing in ceremony, noting that the gap between Gov. Mark Warner's recess appointment of Kemler and her election by the General Assembly made her the first woman circuit court judge and the second woman circuit court judge.

The fight in Richmond between Democrats, who had originally selected Alexandria District Court Judge Nolan Dawkins, and Republicans, who fought to install Fairfax lawyer Tim Battle, was an ongoing theme during the ceremony. Gov. Mark Warner appointed Kemler after Judge Dawkins withdrew his name from consideration, clearing the way for a fight earlier this year during the legislative session that led to Kemler's election.

"She has persevered through the greatest of odds to attain this post," said Judge John Kloch. "After eight years on this court, I'm very happy that I'm not the junior judge anymore."

As the junior judge on Alexandria's circuit court, Kemler has a big job. Alexandria's circuit court hears about 5,000 cases a year. The average caseload for an Alexandria circuit court judge is about 1,600 cases a year. The vast majority of its cases are tried or adjudicated within 120 days.

<b>THE SAGA THAT</B> led to last week's ceremony is a complicated story that began Democrats lost control of the General Assembly in the late 1990s. Incoming Republicans, who were bitter about being alienated from the judicial nomination process for many years, decided that the majority party would have a say in which judges were elected to serve in Virginia.

"The Democrats had complete control over the judicial nominations process for 134 years, and they didn't even let Republicans into the meetings," said state Del. David Albo (R-42). "Not one time did a member of the Alexandria delegation ever stand up to say that the process wasn't fair."

The first vacancy in which the Republicans were able to influence the judicial selection process resulted in naming James Almand, a longtime Democrat in Virginia's House of Delegates, to the Arlington County Circuit Court. A member of the House since 1978, Almand resigned in 2003. Because Republicans viewed him as someone who had been fair during their long exile from power, they supported Almand's election to the circuit court bench.

"We're not against electing judges with Democratic support to the bench," said Del. Albo. "Look at Judge Almand."

<B>THE NEXT COURT</B> vacancy that opened up was in Alexandria, when Judge Alfred Swersky announced his retirement on April 2, 2003. Although the local delegation interviewed applicants and made a recommendation to the Courts of Justice Committee, Republican leaders were not satisfied with the result. Even after the delegation recommended Judge Dawkins to the Courts of Justice, Republicans were looking for candidates for the circuit court vacancy.

What happened next was a battle between parties and chambers, as House Democrats fumed over being ignored and Senate Republicans refused to abandon tradition. When the Courts of Justice convened in early 2004, its members heard testimony from Judge Dawkins, who had been selected by the Democratic delegation, and Tim Battle, who had been selected by Republican members from other parts of the commonwealth. The House side of the Courts of Justice preferred Battle, while the Senate side preferred Dawkins.

The dispute highlighted a partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats on one of the most important duties of the General Assembly: electing the commonwealth's judges. The willingness of the House Republicans to ignore Alexandria's delegation demonstrated that things had changed in Richmond. And their preference for Battle, an academic, over Dawkins, a sitting judge, illustrated the priorities of a new order.

"I am just very disappointed that the members of the House did not recognize the quality of our designees for these vacancies and hold firm to the practice of allowing local legislative delegations to make these appointments," said Sen. Patricia Ticer (D-30).

<B>WHEN THE COURTS</B> of Justice took testimony from Battle, Sen. Linda Puller (D-36) asked about his place of residence. "I understand that you live in my District in Fairfax County," she said. "I don't believe that you have ever applied for one of our many judicial vacancies in the county. Are you aware that a judge must live in the area in which he serves? Are you planning to move to Alexandria if you receive this appointment?"

"I have many ties to Alexandria," Battle responded. "I grew up there, went to school at Blessed Sacrament and at Bishop Ireton and continue to attend church at Blessed Sacrament. My wife and I moved just south of Alexandria because we wanted more room for our family when our children were growing up. If I am appointed to this position, I do intend to move back into the city."

But Battle did not have to move. With the General Assembly at a standstill, Gov. Warner stepped in to offer an appointment to Judge Dawkins. But the governor's recess appointment would expire in early 2005, and House Republicans weren't showing any signs of letting up. If Judge Dawkins had resigned from the district court to take a recess appointment to the circuit court, he may have been out of a job when the General Assembly met. So he decided to withdraw his name from consideration. That's when Gov. Warner appointed Kelmer, the local delegation's second pick to fill the vacancy.

"Lisa Kemler is a talented trial lawyer and widely respected in the Alexandria legal community," Gov. Warner said on June 8, 2004. "I know that she will be an excellent addition to the Alexandria Circuit Court, and I am pleased to appoint her to the bench."

But delegation members still had a fight ahead of them. When the General Assembly met in early 2005, House Republicans were still advocating that Tim Battle be elected to Alexandria’s circuit court. Senate Republicans were still advocating that Alexandria’s local delegation should have its pick. Eventually a compromise was reached.

"The compromise is that each party got a judge," said Del. Robert McDonnell, chairman of the House Courts of Justice Committee. Next month, a Republican preference for the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court will soon be sworn in at the Alexandria courthouse. "In the future, we’ve got to work out a way for Republican majority to pick judges."

Part of the compromise reached earlier last year was an agreement reached between House and Senate Republicans in Richmond: House Republicans would support Kemler on the condition that senators would let the Republican majority fill future judicial vacancies.

"I was against the compromise," said Del. Albo, who is the vice chair of the House Courts of Justice Committee. "Since Republicans are in the majority, Republicans should decide who sits on the court."

<b>THE POLITICAL BATTLES</b> were seemingly over last week as Judge Kemler was sworn in as a presiding judge on Virginia's 18th circuit. Del. Brian Moran, who considers the failure to secure Judge Dawkins' elevation to the Circuit Court one of the biggest disappointments of his legislative career, presented a framed copy of HR43 to Judge Kemler. The House of Delegates agreed to the resolution, which nominated 10 circuit court judges, on Feb. 23.

The sixth paragraph of the resolution names Alexandria's new judge: "Lisa Kemler, of Alexandria, as a judge of the Eighteenth Judicial Circuit for a term of eight years commencing March 1, 2005."

Judge Kemler has strong ties to the Alexandria area, and she is a graduate of T.C. Williams High School. She is a graduate of the University of Virginia and the George Mason University School of Law, where she was the managing editor of the George Mason University Law Review. She has served as a substitute judge within the 18th Judicial Circuit since 1991. Ms. Kemler has taught at the George Washington University Law School and is an instructor with the National Institute of Trial Advocacy.

She has represented high profile clients such as Lorena Bobbit, the woman accused of cutting off her husband's penis, and Anthony Kiedas, the lead singer of Red Hot Chili Peppers. She has appeared as a legal commentator on CNN, Nightline, and Good Morning America.

After being sworn in, Judge Kemler thanked her parents, her husband and her daughter. She praised the 18th circuit, where her career in law started. She thanked Del. Moran for helping to bring about her election in Richmond. And she reflected on what she admired about her favorite judges.

"They were prepared and punctual," said Judge Kemler. "They actually bit the bullet and made a decision."