Should Virginia move to a merit-based system of electing judges?
Judicial selection should rise above politics; it doesn’t
By Creigh Deeds
Deeds represents the 25th District in the Virginia Senate and is a former member of the Senate Courts of Justice Committee and the House Courts of Justice Committee. He was the Democratic candidate for governor in 2009.
The election of judges is one of the most important tasks assigned to the General Assembly by Virginia’s Constitution. It is neither an elite idea nor a liberal idea that the best qualified people be elected to the bench. In fact, merit selection has been embraced by people across the political spectrum and across the commonwealth of Virginia.
The process of electing judges should be transparent, and the people, those who are ultimately served by both the elected judges and the General Assembly, should have complete faith that every length is taken to elect the most qualified people to the bench. Instead of cutting deals to elect political allies or friends to the bench, the General Assembly should establish a vetting process whereby each potential candidate’s qualifications are objectively measured by nonpartisan groups and only those candidates whose experience, temperament and qualifications measure up would be qualified for election.
Commissions made of both lawyers and lay people could be established by the General Assembly to vet candidates. The role of bar associations, both at the state and local level, could be expanded to determine the merit of the various candidates. Providing a vetting process, while leaving the ultimate decision to the General Assembly, is consistent with Virginia’s Constitution.
The judicial selection process is supposed to be above politics. The deal-making that produces judges is not done in the open air, rather in the bowels of the General Assembly building. The process is fraught with smoky-room politics. While I believe our process is superior to direct election of judges because of concerns about the influence of campaign contributions in the judiciary, the taint of blatant partisanship cannot be avoided when a small group of individuals make critical decisions with limited involvement of the public.
We can do better.
Transparency and accountability are hallmarks of current system
By Ben Cline
Cline represents the 24th District in the Virginia House of Delegates. He is a member of the House Courts of Justice Committee and chairs the House Courts Subcommittee on Judicial Appointments. He is an assistant commonwealth’s attorney for Rockingham County and Harrisonburg.
My friend and colleague Creigh Deeds argued correctly in his column that the General Assembly should base its decisions about creating and filling judgeships on objective criteria such as case-load statistics, population and geographic area served.
But the question posed by The Roanoke Times was whether the General Assembly should “move to a merit based system for selecting judges.” This is a very different question. The criteria used to decide whether or not to fill a vacancy are different than the criteria used to decide who fills that vacancy. While objective criteria should (and currently do) determine the former, there are subjective criteria that must be considered when determining the latter.
When selecting a judge, it is essential to consider objective qualities such as prior experience in the courtroom, knowledge of both civil and criminal matters, and experience as a lower court judge. Additionally, it is important to consider subjective qualities such as judicial temperament, involvement in one’s community and a general sense of fairness and mercy.
Measuring these qualities requires the input and advice of multiple sources, including legal associates, colleagues in the local bar and the general public. As the elected representatives of the people, Virginia’s delegates and senators have been entrusted with the responsibility to collect and weigh the information provided by these and other sources in order to make well-informed decisions.
Recognizing this public trust, these elected men and women take great care to evaluate all relevant factors when nominating a candidate. Input from the local bar is sought and welcomed in most circuits. Formalizing that role, as suggested by Deeds, would only add bureaucracy to the selection process. In addition, it would reduce the transparency and accountability that have been hallmarks of a process that has consistently resulted in the election of excellent judges across the commonwealth of Virginia.