Virginia’s Court of Appeals is expanding by six seats and filling a seventh seat left vacant. 46 people have applied for the positions, triggering delays to meet a July 1 deadline. Still, the General Assembly is expected to fill the seats this summer at a yet-to-be-scheduled special session.
In the first 2021 General Assembly special session, legislators passed SB 1261, adding the six seats to the court.
After the legislation passed, legislators asked the Virginia State Bar (VSB) and other bars to evaluate the candidates. According to the VSB’s Virginia Lawyer, its process to evaluate the applicants included a Judicial Candidate Evaluation Committee which will conduct “intense background work” to consider the candidates’ experience, moral integrity, professional competence, temperament, service to the law and justice, and communication skills. The candidates were ranked as qualified and highly qualified.
The bars will make recommendations to the Senate Judiciary Committee and the House of Delegates Courts of Justice Committee, according to a staffer from Senator Joe Morrissey’s (D-Richmond) office. The two committees will meet jointly to evaluate the candidates, and then recommend seven to the House and the Senate for approval during the special session.
Candidates do not have to be judges. People with other legal experience, like defense attorneys, could also apply. The positions are nonpartisan, although Republicans suggest that expanding the court during a Democrat-controlled session will lead to ideological shifts on the court.
In January, sponsor Senator John Edwards (D-Roanoke), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the expansion was necessary to create an automatic right of appeal in any Virginia court, something that he said the rest of the U.S. already has. In February, Morrissey, also on the Judiciary Committee, said that the court does not have enough manpower to hear all the cases that would come from an automatic right of appeal.
“It’s universally recommended that the model for justice should have at least one appeal of right,” Edwards said in committee.
Republicans opposed the bill, and it passed both chambers along party lines, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
In a December 2020 press release, GOP attorney general nominee Delegate Jason Miyares (R-Virginia Beach) 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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