A bill to add six judges to the Virginia Court of Appeals passed the Senate 21 to 18 on Friday. The bill would also create a right to appeal which advocates say is currently impossible due to the court’s manpower shortage. The court has just 11 judges, while states with similar populations often have more. However, Republicans oppose the bill because judges would be elected in the Democrat-controlled General Assembly, which could shift the balance of power in the court to be softer on crime.
SB 1261 sponsor State Senator John Edwards (D-Roanoke) said in committee on January 25 that Virginia’s current system gives no automatic right of appeal in any Virginia court, something that he said the rest of the U.S. already has.
“It’s universally recommended that the model for justice should have at least one appeal of right,” Edwards said. “The limitation in appealing in Virginia both in criminal and civil cases means that the trial judges make the final decision as a practical matter.”
“Right now with criminal cases, let’s say you’re convicted, you have to file a petition for a writ of appeal, you have to be granted a writ in order to appeal. Not everyone is granted a writ, so you have to go through one early stage just to have the right to appeal,” Senator Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond) told The Virginia Star.
Morrissey said adding judges was necessary to address a lack of manpower. “More judges are needed if we’re going to give more criminal defendants an automatic right of appeal,” he said.
The positions are non-partisan, but in the past, Republicans have had more control over the judges appointed. Five of the judges were appointed by either a Republican-controlled General Assembly or a Republican governor. A Democratic governor appointed one judge, while the other judges were appointed during splits of party power in the General Assembly, according to data from Ballotpedia.
Adding the positions was suggested by Governor Ralph Northam, according to a press release from Attorney General candidate Delegate Jason Miyares (R-Virginia Beach).
“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 in his release.
Morrissey said adding Court of Appeals judges was not court packing, which he said was a strategy used by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to get the U.S. Supreme Court to approve some of his policies.
“There was movement to expand the U.S. Supreme Court from nine judges to, at that time it was 15, so he could get the votes that he needed. So that was court packing,” Morrissey said. “This has nothing to do with court packing. It has everything to do with being able to give criminal defendants an automatic right of appeal after they have been convicted in certain court.”
Miyares said, “Just like the liberals in Washington, D.C. 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. Flipping the ideological makeup of this Court will make it soft on crime. This is yet another reason why we must restore conservative leadership back to Richmond for a safe and secure Commonwealth.”
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