What? You Want Us to Be Consistent?

The rule maker, Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, gets to decide the exceptions to the rule.

by Richard Hall-Sizemore

In 2014, Sen. Philip Puckett, a Democrat from far Southwest Virginia, was in a quandary. His daughter was vying for a juvenile and domestic relations court judgeship, to which she had already been appointed as a substitute judge. However, Republicans in the Senate, led by Sen. Tommy Norment, R-James City, were holding up her election, not based on any objection to her qualifications, but because of a tradition of not supporting family members of sitting Senators for judgeships.

Fast forward to 2019. Until yesterday there was a vacancy pending on the Virginia Supreme Court. A Republican senator from far Southwest Virginia is, according to newspaper reports, lobbied his fellow senators to elect his sister, currently a member of the Virginia Court of Appeals, to the higher post.  Norment said that situation was different because the senator’s sister had already been elected to a judgeship before her brother had been elected to the Senate.

Not wanting to seem to give preferential treatment to family members of its colleagues, the Senate’s informal rule against supporting them for judgeships seems reasonable. But it seems that rule would apply to all judgeships, whether applying to entry level or the highest post in the judiciary.

Upon closer examination of history, it turns out that the situation in 2014 was different for another reason. The Senate was deadlocked, 20-20, with a Democratic Lieutenant Governor presiding. Norment was holding Puckett’s daughter’s judgeship hostage in order to pressure him to resign, giving the Republicans a chance to grab the majority. The gambit worked.  Puckett resigned and a Republican was elected to take his place.

Who was the Republican benefiting from the rule that senators should not elect family members to judgeships? Why, Ben Chafin, the Senator whose sister was  elected yesterday to the Virginia Supreme Court! Obviously, for Tommy Norment, being in the majority means you get to set the rules and they do not necessarily apply to you.

Richard W. Hall-Sizemore recently retired from a position in the Department of Planning and Budget.

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5 responses to “What? You Want Us to Be Consistent?

  1. McConnell Jr.

  2. Then there was the flap over Delegate Frank Hall’s highly-qualified wife Phoebe when she was first proposed for the bench, and also Delegate Gear’s sister down in Hampton. I do not know Judge Chafin, but she was indeed on the Appeals Court before her brother became a Senator, and this is a natural elevation. The wanted somebody from the SW. The real story is the process for judicial selection itself – the majority caucus meeting and voting in secret, with a strong deference to the local delegation. Pure patronage and log rolling.

    Back in the day then Delegate Steve Agee (now on the federal 4th Circuit) had legislation to create a strong process to review qualifications of judicial candidates. Some wag, can’t remember who, wisecracked that the GA could still pick cronies, but they’d be well qualified cronies……

    • I don’t know anything about Judge Chafin, either, and she is probably a fine judge. I just think that if you set up a standard, it should be applicable to all. I understand about the desire for regional balance on the Supreme Court, but, surely there were other qualified Republican judges or lawyers in Southwest Virginia.

      Unlike many, I don’t have a problem with the way judges are chosen in Virginia. Yes, cronies and former legislators get judgeships, but, from what I can tell, the quality of judges in Virginia is generally high. The Virginia Way certainly is better than popular election of judges. For evidence of that, just look next door to West Virginia!

      • The problem in Virginia isn’t the way judges are chosen. The problem is that practicing lawyers in the General Assembly try their cases in front of judges they elect and re-elect. That’s tin-horn dictatorship style governance.

  3. The world would work much better and be a fairer place if we had one set of rules for everyone similarly situated. To get it, we’d probably need to see an atomic bomb dropped on the Greater Washington Metro Area.

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