Lawmakers must choose retiring judge’s successor

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 29, 2008

FRANKLIN—As Judge Robert B. Edwards prepares to vacate the bench in favor of a state-mandated retirement, questions persist about the process for his replacement.

The traditional system the General Assembly used to pick judges could fall by the wayside this year, as control of the State’s legislature is split between Republicans in the House of Delegates and Democrats in the Senate.

Where one party would have controlled the appointment in the past, the division of power within this year’s General Assembly requires that legislators come up with a new plan.

&uot;I hope it will proceed on a bipartisan basis,&uot; Del. William K. Barlow (D-64th) said Thursday. Barlow serves on the House of Delegates’ Courts of Justice Committee and is a member of the judicial review panel that vets the candidates’ qualifications.

&uot;If anything is going to be bipartisan, I would certainly think that picking a judge should be.&uot;

Barlow was quick to admit that the process has been anything but bipartisan in the past, whether Republicans or Democrats were in the lead.

&uot;As a practical matter, it has always been political.&uot;

For most of Virginia’s modern history, the same political party has controlled both houses of the General Assembly. Historically, when a judge’s seat became available, attorneys or judges who lived or practiced law in particular communities would submit their names for consideration, and the majority-party delegates and senators representing that court’s area of jurisdiction would choose the candidate they liked best.

A panel comprising judicial review subcommittee members from both the Senate and the House would then convene to interview that candidate and determine whether he was qualified for the job, according to Barlow. If that committee’s findings were favorable, the candidate’s selection would be confirmed in a floor vote.

The fact that neither party is firmly in control of the legislature this year complicates the process somewhat.

&uot;I don’t know at this point what the procedure would be,&uot; Barlow said.

The House of Delegates already has voted on a slate of &uot;non-controversial&uot; and incumbent judges this session, he said. But the complications in the process and the fact that there are at least six people contending for the 5th District seat probably mean any action to replace Judge Edwards will await the second half of the legislature’s eight-week session.

&uot;It’s hard during the first half of our eight-week session to find the time,&uot; he explained. &uot;We’re working hard night and day passing bills.&uot;

Edwards, whom Barlow said &uot;did such a great job,&uot; will continue to serve as a substitute judge until his replacement is named.

Among those who have submitted their names for consideration are:

* W. Parker Councill, Isle of Wight’s Commonwealth’s Attorney;

* Inga Francis, a Boykins resident and government and history teacher in Suffolk who maintains a license to practice law;

* Robert W. Jones Jr., a Smithfield attorney who also serves as Special Justice for Mental Health in the 5th District;

* Jennifer T. Stanton, an Isle of Wight attorney who practices law with a Norfolk firm;

* Ira Steingold, a Suffolk attorney who has also announced his intent to run for mayor of that city;

* And Thomas L. Watkins, who heads up the public defender’s office in Franklin.

The Franklin-Southampton Bar Association has endorsed Watkins, and Jones received the nod from the Isle of Wight Bar Association.

The 5th Judicial District encompasses the cities of Franklin and Suffolk and the counties of Southampton and Isle of Wight. Candidates for the judgeship must live in or practice law in one of those communities.