Roanoke Valley judge up for Va. Supreme Court

Clifford Weckstein has been endorsed by one bar association, but a political snare may complicate the appointment process.

By Laurence Hammack, The Roanoke Times – June 8, 2008

Clifford Weckstein, the Roanoke Valley’s most senior circuit court judge, is in the running for a seat on the Virginia Supreme Court.

Weckstein was endorsed Friday by the Salem/Roanoke County Bar Association for a vacancy on the high court created by Justice Steven Agee’s recent appointment to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Appointed by the General Assembly in 1987, Weckstein brought to the bench a painstaking and thorough knowledge of the law that lawyers say has only grown deeper over the past two decades.

“He is unquestionably a student of the law,” said Steven Emmert, a Virginia Beach lawyer and appellate court analyst. “He very much wants to get his decisions right, whereas other judges just want to get their decisions made.”

But as Emmert recently pointed out on his blog, Virginia Appellate News & Analysis, the process of replacing Agee runs the risk of becoming mired in a political stalemate over judicial appointments.

With Democrats in control of the Senate and Republicans holding a majority in the House, General Assembly legislators were unable to reach an agreement on how to fill at least two dozen judgeships by the end of this year’s regular session.

Agee’s departure from the high court comes when the legislature is out of session, which may leave the task of naming his replacement to Gov. Tim Kaine. Such an appointment would have to be confirmed by the General Assembly at its next session.

Because “the judicial election climate has been anything but peaceful,” as Emmert put it, some potential candidates for the Supreme Court vacancy might be unwilling to give up their current jobs for a position that could be temporary.

“What capable member of the bar would give up his successful practice? What sitting judge would give up her established seat (remember, you can’t be a judge in two courts at the same time) for a short-term appointment?” Emmert wrote.

“If I’m right about that, then the General Assembly has shrunk the available pool of candidates to preposterously small proportions,” he wrote on his blog. “And you know who will pay the price for that.”

Kaine spokesman Gordon Hickey confirmed that the governor has asked that endorsements for the position be forwarded to his office by mid-June. But that doesn’t mean Kaine will necessarily make an appointment, he said.

“The ball really is in the General Assembly’s court,” Hickey said, raising the possibility that the legislature could make the appointment when it meets in special session later this month to take up transportation issues.

Until then, Hickey said, the governor is keeping his options open.

Hickey declined to say how many names have been submitted to Kaine for consideration, or who they might be.

The Roanoke Bar Association will meet Tuesday to consider endorsing a candidate. Other recommendations will be made by statewide groups such as the Virginia State Bar and the Virginia Women Attorneys Association.

If Weckstein were to be elevated to the Supreme Court, the Roanoke Valley would keep two positions on the seven-member body. Agee, who is expected to take his job on the Richmond-based federal appellate court sometime this summer, is from Salem. Justice Lawrence Koontz is also from Salem.

Prior to taking the bench in 1987, Weckstein was a private lawyer in Roanoke. In addition to presiding over a number of high-profile cases, he has served as chairman of the judicial education committee of the Judicial Conference of Virginia and as a member of the Virginia State Bar’s standing committee on professionalism.

He is a recipient of University of Virginia School of Law’s William J. Brennan Jr. Award.

Weckstein, who has the longest tenure of the six circuit court judges who preside in the Roanoke Valley’s 23rd Judicial Circuit, was appointed at a time when Democrats controlled the General Assembly.

But because judges are prohibited by law from making campaign contributions or being politically active, Weckstein “has been above and removed from politics” for the past 20 years, Roanoke lawyer Ray Ferris said.

Ferris said he thinks Weckstein’s legal track record will carry more weight with lawmakers than any long-past political affiliations that might be linked to him.

“He’s got the sharpest legal mind of anyone I’ve known in recent modern history,” Ferris said. “He enjoys research, he enjoys writing, and when he examines an issue, you can pretty well bet he’s on the money when he forms an opinion.”