RICHMOND, Virginia – The General Assembly approved eight new judges for the Court of Appeals of Virginia Tuesday. Although tradition kept Republicans from voting against the candidates, votes on individual candidates varied as Republican legislators abstained. That completed the General Assembly’s goals for the special session: allocating American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds and filling court vacancies.

“I thought it was an historic session,” Senator Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) told The Virginia Star. “What just happened with the Court of Appeals was the largest number of judges to go on the Court of Appeals since 1985, and we gave Virginians the same right to appeal their legal matter that every other American has.”

“The appropriations we made are going to solve Virginia’s broadband connectivity issues forever, we made historic investments in mental health, clean air for our schools, got our law enforcement officers a bonus which they desperately need given everything they’ve been through in the last 12 months,” he said. “It was a huge session.”

The eight new judges will fill two existing vacancies in addition to six seats added by the General Assembly earlier in 2021. Adding manpower to the court enables the court to grant a right of appeal to all Virginians. When the court was expanded, Republicans suggested that Republicans were trying to unbalance the court. In the special session, Republicans criticized Democrats for vetting the candidates with little input from Republicans.

Legislators from both parties interviewed the Democratic leadership’s eight candidates in the House of Delegates Courts of Justice Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee. Legislators asked the candidates about their experience and motivations, with occasional more detailed questions. But the interviews were largely perfunctory. The candidates are the result of months of vetting by Virginia’s bar associations. House Democrats declined to allow Republicans to put forward any candidates, and Democrats announced the names of their eight picks Monday.

“We didn’t have anything to do with that, other than the process that’s sort of all for show. Once it’s decided they bring them in front of the committee to, in theory, vet them, but it’s already decided by that point who’s going to be on the ballot,” House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) told The Virginia Star.

The candidates include appellate specialists, circuit court judges, public defenders, a past president of the Virginia State Bar, a former Virginia solicitor general, and a legal aid attorney. Despite the fact that they were proposed by Democrats, several of the candidates were praised by Republican senators and earned bipartisan support during votes.

Woods Rogers PLC Appellate Team Chairman Frank Friedman, one of the candidates elected to the court, said he expects many Virginians to take advantage of that new right.

“I do think there’s going to be an explosion of appeals, and I think that’s good, I think that’s a plus, I think that’s the beauty of what the legislation is doing, because a lot of people feel like they haven’t had a chance to appeal,” he told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

“We’ll now have a Court of Appeals that has regional, racial, gender, and practice area diversity that it needs to be able to fairly hear matters in all the various types of matters including new matters that we’ve assigned to it,” Surovell said. “The court was starting to look all the same because of all of the people from Richmond and Hampton Roads.”

After House and Senate elected the eight Appeals Court judges and judges for lower courts, the General Assembly recessed, marking the end of the second 2021 special session. But a third session might be coming soon. If the Virginia Redistricting Commission meets legally required deadlines, the General Assembly will also face deadlines to consider the maps.

In the name of keeping the session short, Democratic leadership had carefully controlled how legislators could amend the ARPA allocation bill and prevented other topics from being considered. The strategy worked — the session lasted just eight days. Both before and during the session Republicans criticized the process that left them largely out of control.

Gilbert said, “The way both the budget and court packing, the expansion of the Court of Appeals, were both decided, it seems like it didn’t do much for transparency and open government. Those things were largely decided in advance.”

“We were able to contribute to some improvements in the budget bill, but it still fell short of the type of input we would have preferred to have in a normal committee process,” he said.

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Eric Burk is a reporter at The Virginia Star and the Star News Network. Email tips to eburk@vastarnews.com.
Photos by Eric Burk.