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Former bar association presidents protest tug of war over judicial appointment

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Twenty-seven former presidents of the Virginia Bar Association are speaking out about the increasingly nasty tug of war taking place between Gov. Terry McAuliffe and the Republican legislative leadership over the appointment of a state Supreme Court justice.

“One of the greatest concerns is that the unseemly exchange that has occurred will make otherwise qualified lawyers not consider a life of public service as a judge – thereby reducing the applicant pool, if you will,” said Lucia Anna “Pia” Trigiani  of MercerTrigiani in Alexandria, the VBA’s president in 2011.

The battle between McAuliffe and the GOP leadership began last summer when the governor appointed Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Jane Marum Roush to the Virginia Supreme Court while the legislature was not in session.

Republicans have cried foul, saying McAuliffe did not consult them before making the move. The legislature has the power to make judicial appointments. The governor can make interim appointments, but they must be approved by the General Assembly.

Republicans have vowed to replace Roush with their own appointee but have been thwarted by the refusal of one moderate Republican, former state Sen. John Watkins, and his successor, state Sen. Glen H. Sturtevant Jr., to follow along. Their dissent denied the Republicans the majority they needed in the Virginia Senate.

Former presidents of the Virginia Bar Association (VBA) sent a letter in August to the governor and legislative leaders protesting the fighting over Roush’s appointment.

“We strongly urge both the General Assembly and the governor to resolve their differences in another way that does not discredit the appointment process for Virginia Supreme Court justices, personally harm this sitting justice and discourage highly qualified potential candidates from allowing themselves to be considered for appointment by future governors to this or any of the other courts of the commonwealth,” the letter said.

In a new statement released Thursday, they again urged the warring parties to bury the hatchet.

“The impasse over Justice Roush’s election should be addressed in a manner that does not discredit the process for election of members of the Virginia judiciary and in particular, the Virginia Supreme Court,” the statement said.  “We urge our elected representatives to put aside partisanship and follow the tradition and example of their predecessors in preserving the rule of law.”

Without taking sides in the dispute, the statement notes that 31 previous gubernatorial appointments to the state Supreme Court latter were confirmed by General Assembly. 

“The merits of the current appointment are without question,” the statement notes.  “The fitness and qualifications of Justice Roush have been confirmed by the House Courts of Justice Committee in certifying her for consideration by the full House of Delegates.”

The new statement from the VBA presidents follows an odd twist in the fight earlier this week. State Sen. Louise Lucas, a Democrat from Portsmouth, briefly agreed to join the Republicans in replacing Roush. According to news accounts, Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr., a Republican from James City County, had proposed putting Portsmouth Circuit Court Judge Kenneth R. Melvin, a former legislator and Lucas’ mentor, on the state Court of Appeals.

Lucas, however, quickly changed her stance after meeting with McAuliffe and state Sen. Donald McEachin, head of the Senate Democratic Caucus.

Trigiani said the Lucas incident did not prompt the latest statement from the group.

“Rather – the statement is issued in general support for the independence of the judiciary and due to the concern that a judicial selection process that has successfully placed lawyers on the court has become overly politicized to the great disadvantage of the court and the citizens of the Commonwealth who are losing the expertise and experience of a highly regarded and qualified jurist,” she said.

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