After Governor Ralph Northam made a number of proposals to the state’s biennial budget on Wednesday, several Republican legislators rebuked the Democrat’s recommendation to expand the Virginia Court of Appeals and claimed he was trying to pack the court.
Northam presented his budget proposals during a virtual meeting with the House of Delegates and Senate appropriation committees.
“We are also proposing to add four judges to Virginia’s Court of Appeals, along with support staff, to ensure the court can hear more appeals cases in a timely manner under an increasing workload,” Northam said during the committee meeting.
The budget amendment would increase the number of judges in the court of appeals from 11 to 15 and would cost a total of $5.1 million over the next two years – $235,419 in 2021 and $4,876,227 in 2022 – representing 2.9 percent of the all money allocated for Northam’s proposals.
Del. Jason Miyares (R-Virginia Beach), a member of the House Committee on Courts of Justice and a candidate for attorney general in 2021, expressed staunch opposition to the move in a statement on Wednesday.
“Governor Northam’s attempt to pack our courts before his term expires is a brazen liberal power grab that threatens to fundamentally change our state’s judicial system,” Miyares said. “Just like the liberals in Washington, DC want to do with the Supreme Court, the liberals in Richmond are trying to manipulate the courts through rushed appointments while they still have control of the executive branch and General Assembly.”
Miyares also asserted that adding Democrat appointees to the court of appeals would make it softer on crime and called the proposal another reason why conservative leadership needs to be restored in Richmond and the Commonwealth.
Senate Republican Caucus Chair Ryan McDougle (D-Hanover) said in his own statement that Northam is trying to pack the court, politicize Virginia’s judiciary and, like Miyares, compared the expansion to congressional Democrats “scheme” to expand the United States Supreme Court.
“I will adamantly oppose this effort by the governor to appease and appeal to his party’s extreme left-wing,” McDougle wrote.
While leveling complaints over other proposals and identifying things that are lacking, Del. Kirk Cox, former Speaker of the House and one of the announced GOP candidates for governor in 2021, also argued Northam’s budget recommendation is to pack the court.
However, Cox did recognize that the court of appeals may be in need of more judges and that civil cases should be considered by the body.
“This General Assembly and this governor should not get to pack the court with judges of their choosing,” Cox said in a statement. “The enactment date of any court expansion should be staggered and new judges should be appointed by a nonpartisan merit-based selection committee to ensure this does not become a partisan attempt to remake our well-respected Court of Appeals.”
Several Democratic legislators took a different stance on a potential expansion, agreeing with the governor, and rebutting Republican’s court packing claims.
Del. Mark Levine (D-Arlington) said that since the court of appeals was originally formed in 1985, it has not yet been expanded between then and now, and the workload has increased by 40 percent during those 35 years.
“Most importantly, Virginia is the only state in the United States not to guarantee its citizens an appeal as of right,” Levine said in an interview with The Virginia Star. “[The court] only takes the appeals it wants to take. There should be at least one appellate court that handles a case as of right, meaning that the person who has been convicted of a crime or challenging a verdict has a chance to have a review in court.”
When asked about Republicans’ arguments of court packing, Levine added that the decision of whether or not to expand the court is not a partisan argument, but about Virginians’ right to the same due process 49 other states already have.
Sen. Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond City) told The Star that he is against any type of court packing and what Northam proposed is different because, depending on the case, not all Virginians are afforded the right to appeal. Morrissey also mentioned that the Court of Appeals of New Jersey, which has 8.8 million people, has 37 judges.
Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico County) applauded Northam’s proposal and said expansion was the necessary thing to do “to make sure that we have justice and equity throughout the Commonwealth.”
Now that the governor’s proposals are in the hands of the General Assembly’s money committees, it will be interesting to see how expanding the appeals court will be debated in the Senate and House, and if the recommendation will even remain in the budget as it’s adjusted during session.
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Jacob Taylor is a reporter at The Virginia Star and the Star News Digital Network. Follow Jacob on Twitter. Email tips to [email protected]
Background Photo “Virginia Capitol” by Martin Kraft. CC BY-SA 3.0.