Court to hear ex-judge’s appeal
Verbena Askew gets hearing over $456,000 defamation verdict

By Peter Dujardin, Daily Press – 6/27/2011

NEWPORT NEWS — The Virginia Supreme Court will hear former Newport News Circuit Court Judge Verbena Askew’s challenge to a $456,000 jury verdict against her in a 2010 defamation case.

Earlier this month, a three-justice panel of the state’s high court granted Askew’s appeal a full hearing. That means that the full court will now decide whether or not the verdict in Williamsburg-James City County Circuit Court should stand.

“The fact that they granted the writ probably indicates that someone, at least, thinks there’s something wrong with the judgment,” said Askew’s lawyer, L. Steven Emmert of Virginia Beach.

The Virginia Supreme Court, cherry picking its cases, grants full hearings to only about 20 percent of the civil appeals it gets. Of about 600 appeals filed per year in civil cases, it grants full hearings to about 125 cases. Of those, it overturns the lower court ruling about 60 percent of the time.

In February 2010, a jury found that Askew had defamed a former drug court official and violated a confidentiality agreement when the judge spoke with the media about a work-place dispute between the two women in 2003.

The Daily Press wrote extensively in 2003 about Askew’s bid in the General Assembly to be appointed to a new term — a fight she ultimately lost. As lawmakers considered Askew’s reappointment, details began to emerge about a claim against her two years earlier in Hampton.

In 2001, a former administrator at a regional drug court claimed that Askew, then a sitting judge, had sexually harassed her. The woman ended up reaching a confidential $64,000 settlement with the city of Hampton, where she was employed. Askew and the woman signed confidentiality agreements.

The settlement documents became public during a Jan. 17, 2003 General Assembly committee hearing on Askew’s reappointment. But Askew spoke with the Daily Press about the case before that.

In 2010, the jury said Askew violated the agreement by talking with and providing documents to the newspaper about her workplace dispute. (The Daily Press also was sued, though the case against the newspaper was later dropped).

Askew’s pending appeal contends that the evidence didn’t prove the case against her, and that Circuit Court W.J. Ford — the retired judge on the case — erred in refusing to set aside the verdict.

Emmert, Askew’s lawyer, said the jury was asked to make factual findings on six defamatory statements attributed to Askew. But they determined, he said, that Askew only made one of the statements. In that statement, she allegedly told a Daily Press editor that the drug court official had been “institutionalized.”

But the newspaper never printed that statement, Emmert said. And because the woman said the news story was the source of the damages she suffered, he said, the findings don’t square with the $456,000 verdict.

Askew, now a local lawyer, did not return phone calls Monday. The court official’s lawyer, Harris D. Butler III, of Richmond, also did not return a phone call.