Court Squared: Legal community weighs in as Assembly fills circuit court bench

Who will take the place of retiring judge Edward L. Hogshire (above) on the 16th Circuit bench? The local legal community plays a role in selecting his successor. Photo: Graelyn Brashear Who will take the place of retiring judge Edward L. Hogshire (above) on the 16th Circuit bench? The local legal community plays a role in selecting his successor. Photo: Graelyn Brashear

Ever wonder how somebody becomes a judge? As the powers-that-be gear up to find a replacement for retiring 16th Judicial Circuit Judge Edward L. Hogshire, we’ve got a chance to watch the process play out from start to finish. For those seeking a seat on a local bench, that process starts here in the community and ends in the chambers of the General Assembly.

The two constants to remember for aspiring judges, besides the basic requirement of being licensed to practice law by their state bar association, are to make lots of contacts in the legal world (especially influential ones) and don’t piss off too many of your fellow legal practitioners (especially influential ones). A third equally important trait: Have a reputation for being good at what you do before you decide to seek the gavel.

Even if you’re only mildly interested in politics, you’re probably familiar with the U.S. Supreme Court nomination process. That’s where the President’s nominee sits poker-faced in front of a clamorous Senate committee for a few days fielding questions and swearing he or she is not a judicial activist. The nominee is exceedingly careful to conceal any hint of a personality. Upon confirmation, the Supreme Court Justice is then free to assume recognizable human characteristics, including emotions and partisan ideologies.

For local judicial candidates, including those vying for Judge Hogshire’s seat, things play out on a smaller scale. Virginia circuit court judges are elected by a majority vote of both chambers of the General Assembly for eight-year terms. Like in any job application, those seeking to become judges need recommendations. This is where the Charlottesville Albemarle Bar Association (CABA) steps in.

Qualified judicial candidates can seek a nod from CABA’s Judicial Endorsement Committee. The four most recent past CABA presidents, as well as six at-large CABA members and any retired judge interested in participating, form the committee.

“An endorsement from the committee essentially gives the legislature more information on the candidate to help make a more informed decision,” said Committee Chair Page Williams.

To get a CABA endorsement, an individual must first submit a statement of interest to the committee. After that, the interested party fills out a questionnaire. CABA actively recruits public input in the endorsement process by holding an interview forum open to both CABA and community members. The forum is like a large, group interview where anybody can show up and watch. Imagine an interview you had in the past. Now imagine that same interview being conducted by 15 interviewers in front of your peers, colleagues, and anyone else who happens to meander in off the street. Sounds fun, right?

Much like their U.S. Supreme Court candidate counterparts, Commonwealth judicial hopefuls typically must endure some public scrutiny if they desire a judgeship. They don’t have to worry about constant C-SPAN coverage, however.

The committee accepts questions from the public and other CABA members to be considered for the interview forum. Each candidate is asked the same set of questions. The committee’s end goal is to determine which individual or individuals are “highly qualified” to assume the judgeship, according to CABA’s bylaws. In the end, all of CABA’s members will vote to select which names to send to the General Assembly. These may or may not include the individuals deemed to be highly qualified by the committee.

The public forum for the vacant 16th Judicial Circuit seat was held December 9 at the Charlottesville Circuit Court. The committee determined three of the six candidates to be highly qualified. David B. Franzen, Judge Richard E. Moore, and Joseph W. Wright, III now only have to receive the vote of the CABA’s members in order to receive the prized endorsement.

However, like any employment recommendation, there’s no guarantee that it will sway the person on the receiving end to hire you. The same goes for CABA’s endorsement.

“It’s the legislature that ultimately selects judges, not the committee,” said Williams about the committee’s recommendation to the General Assembly. “The last judge elected [in the area] by the legislature did not receive an endorsement.”

The General Assembly will select the individual to fill Judge Hogshire’s vacant seat sometime in January, 2014. The chosen individual’s term will start on February 1, 2014.