Time for an intervention

Published 9:51 am Friday, March 14, 2014

Some things should be beyond the ugly realm of partisan politics.

There was a time—not all that long ago—when Virginia’s General Assembly could be counted upon as a foil to the maneuvering and machinations that characterize so much of what happens in the United States Congress. But recent sessions of the state legislature have proved the cancer of rank partisanship has spread south along I-95 and invaded Richmond.

Perhaps, in this age of American divisions, that is not so surprising. There are important differences—or at least there should be—between the conservatives and liberals who occupy elected offices at both the state and federal levels. And many of the issues those elected officials are trying to decide are fraught with ideological baggage.

Conservatives and liberals in Richmond, for instance, were unable to find common ground on a state budget during their regular session because of the issue of Medicaid expansion. The reach of government is at the foundation of the matter, and competing ideologies have made common ground scarce.

But there are some functions of state government that should be above the fray of politics. One of those functions is the naming of judges. Judges—at least in theory—operate above the internecine squabbles that consume so much of legislators’ time. That’s why Virginia’s judges are appointed and not elected.

But even the simple matter of selecting new judges to fill seats left open by retirement has been dragged into the pit of partisanship in recent years. Last year, for example, then-Gov. Bob McDonnell had to step in and make an appointment to fill the seat vacated by the retirement of Fifth Circuit Judge William Savage, because legislators could not come to an agreement about the replacement during their regular session.

This year, the General Assembly was unable even to agree on how many Circuit Court judges should be seated around the commonwealth until the final day of the session. The full legislature will not consider the actual candidates—including the ones vying for the Fifth Circuit seat vacated by the recent retirement of Judge Rodham T. Delk—until the April 23 veto session.

Meanwhile, courts in the Fifth Circuit will operate with only two of the three judges who would normally comprise a full slate. Gaps in the schedule will have to be filled with substitute judges.

Virginia’s General Assembly is beginning to show all the signs of an unhealthy marriage. Perhaps it’s time for counseling—or an intervention.