Politics’ role in selecting
judges condemned, defended
By Tim McGlone, Michelle Washington and Harry Minium
The Virginian-Pilot - February 12, 2007
Virginia remains the only state in the nation in which the legislature
- specifically the majority party - wields all the power in the
judicial selection process.
That has made appointing judges a perk and an opportunity for
According to state campaign finance records, some judges appointed
to the local trial courts - or their family members - made hefty
campaign contributions to the legislators who picked them. Most
donations occurred in the years just prior to their nominations.
Several candidates for current judicial openings in Norfolk
are following that trend.
Ira Lederman, father of Steven Lederman, a candidate for the
Norfolk Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, contributed $5,500
to Norfolk Sen. Nick Rerras and other Republicans over the past
10 years. Reeves Mahoney, the husband of circuit judge candidate
Joan E. Mahoney, has given $500 to Rerras and a total of $10,800
to Republicans in the same time period.
Rerras, Norfolk's only Republican in the Senate, decides who
is nominated for judicial vacancies in Norfolk. Those nominees
then are voted on by the General Assembly.
Ira Lederman gave Rerras $1,950, including $450 for food and
drink at a fundraiser, between 1999 and 2005, according to the
Virginia Public Access Project, which tracks campaign contributions.
His son made just one $75 contribution to Rerras two years ago.
"I give to people I think are honorable," Ira Lederman
said. "It has nothing to do with my wife or my daughters
or my son."
He noted that he has not given Rerras any money since he wrote
a $100 check in 2005.
Reeves Mahoney's biggest donations went to Bob McDonnell, his
former law partner and the state's attorney general. The next
biggest amount went to Mahoney's college friend, Republican Randy
Forbes, a former state legislator and now a U.S. congressman
representing the 4th District.
The reappointment of Portsmouth Circuit Judge Dean W. Sword
Jr. also has raised questions about the influence of money and
politics. Sword, who gave $1,350 to Republicans just before his
appointment in 1999, was selected after Portsmouth Democrats
agreed to support him in exchange for the reappointment of Circuit
Judge Johnny E. Morrison.
Now, Del. Ken Melvin, D-Portsmouth, has held up Sword's reappointment,
citing his lack of confidence in the judge's ability. Melvin,
an attorney, has said he was displeased with a courtroom experience
in front of Sword.
Since 1870, the Virginia General Assembly has selected judges
to serve the state's criminal, civil and family courts.
For the decades last century that Democrats were in power, they
filled open judge positions with little outside assistance. Republicans
complained for years about the partisan process.
Republicans say they have improved the system since they seized
power in 1999, creating citizens panels to assist in the selection
process. Democrats say that is simply window dressing.
When power shifted to the Republicans, two people were left
calling the shots for Norfolk: then-Del. Thelma Drake and Rerras.
After Drake was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives,
the power resided solely with Rerras.
Norfolk lawyer George Anderson sees that as a problem.
"He's the king," Anderson said. "He
feels he can do whatever he wants."
Rerras, who did not return phone calls over the past several
days for this article, has had plenty of opportunities to exercise
his power in the p ast few years, naming S. Clark Daugherty to
the general district court and raising Alfred M. Tripp from his
seat on the general district court to the circuit court.
Tripp, who was first appointed to the bench in 2003, provided
more than $6,900 to the campaign funds of Rerras, Drake and other
Republicans, according to Virginia Public Access Project records.
In that time, Rerras chose one Democrat: Jerrauld Jones, a former
state delegate who also headed the Department of Juvenile Justice.
In more than 30 states, voters elect judges. Sen. Kenneth Stolle,
R-Virginia Beach, is opposed to that selection process.
"I don't see how a judge could run for office and not have
a conflict of interest," Stolle said.
That would mean joining a party, raising money and accepting
endorsements, he said. State law currently forbids sitting judges
from actively participating in party politics, a prohibition
Rerras has sought input from professionals and a Citizens Judiciary
Advisory Panel, whose members he picked himself.
The Norfolk and Portsmouth Bar Association, the Virginia Women
Attorneys Association and the citizens panel interview and rate
judge candidates, and forward their recommendations to Rerras.
Norfolk lawyer John Padgett heads the citizens panel, which
sends its recommendations to Rerras. The panel's deliberations
and its membership are secret.
Padgett said keeping citizens panel members anonymous insulates
them from campaigning by judge candidates.
But without publicizing at least the results of the interviews,
if not the entire process, Virginia Beach lawyer Steve Emmert
said, it's impossible to know that for sure.
"If there's going to be a panel, we ought to know who it
is they recommend," Emmert said. "If the delegation
consistently ignores or obeys the panel, citizens ought to know
Mary Commander, a judicial candidate who met with Rerras on
Feb. 2, said he told her he had made up his mind whom to nominate
before conducting any interviews.
She complained that he queried her on
her opinions on abortion and used the word "femi-Nazi." She
said she felt pressured to join or give money to the Republican
Rerras has denied he had made up his mind on the appointment
and denied that he implied she give money to the party.
"Nick made some mistakes, and he's learned from them," Stolle
said. "... By and large the system has worked very well."
Del. Paula Miller, D-Norfolk, said Rerras consults the seven
Democrats who represent Norfolk in the House and Senate. In the
past, she said, Rerras has invited her to interviews of judicial
Rerras has not invited her to interviews this year, she said,
but on Friday he e-mailed the recommendations from the citizens
committee for the judicial openings to Miller and other Norfolk
lawmakers. Rerras asked for their feedback by Tuesday. He had
already forwarded recommendations from the Norfolk and Portsmouth
bar and women attorneys associations.
"We don't have the final pick," Miller said. "But
if we had some major objection, I think he would take that into
Rerras' interview with Commander was atypical of the selection
process, said Del. Lionell Spruill Sr., D-Chesapeake.
"What my friend in Norfolk did was beyond the line," Spruill
said. "We're not trying to get a Supreme Court judge here."
Chesapeake's selection process is inclusive and fair, he said,
with the same questions asked of all candidates. Social issues
such as religion and abortion are left off the table and both
parties participate, said Spruill, whose district includes parts
of Chesapeake and Suffolk.
"At least in Chesapeake we all get together," he said. "At
least they invite me and let me go through the motions."
Padgett said Rerras listens to the recommendations made by the
"Every candidate selected since the process started has
been in the highest group recommended by the committee," Padgett
said. "Based on the results to date, his choice and the
committee's recommendations have been aligned."
Commander, Anderson and others advocated an independent review
panel for judge candidates, with results that would be binding
Some states use such a "merit-based" system,
asking panels of lawyers, retired judges, citizens and others
and rank those who aspire to the bench. That panel presents a
list of qualified candidates to legislators, who would be required
to choose a judge from the list.
That's the system recommended by the American Bar Association
and currently in use in a handful of states.
Past attempts to make the process less political have failed.
W.T. Mason Jr., head of the South Hampton Roads Bar Association,
said that years ago, when the Democrats still held power, Republicans
pushed for changes.
Once the GOP gained control of the legislature,
he said, "they
were no longer interested in any changes. I don't know how to
convince them other than exposing the system and its flaws and
inviting public discussion," Mason said.
Attorney General McDonnell disagrees.
He said he succeeded, as a delegate, in pushing changes both
in the selection and reappointment processes before he left the
General Assembly in 2005.
Candidates for the Virginia Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals
must be selected from a statewide merit panel. And he persuaded
local legislators to establish citizens panels to make recommendations,
something the Democrats never did.
Judges up for future reappointments will be scrutinized with
evaluations by attorneys and jurors. The Virginia Supreme Court
is phasing in that program. The General Assembly will be getting
those evaluations when it considers future reappointments.
"We made dramatic reforms," McDonnell said. "I
think that it's a good process now.
Staff Writer John Hopkins contributed to this report.
Reach Tim McGlone at (757)446-2343 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reach Michelle Washington at (757) 446-2287 or email@example.com.
Reach Harry Minium at (757)446-2371 or firstname.lastname@example.org.