The Virginia General Assembly will have an open judge’s seat to fill next year, given the recently announced retirement of Albemarle Circuit Court Judge Paul M. Peatross. Though lawmakers have called for an open and fair appointment, local lawyers expect the process to reflect increasing partisanship in judicial appointments in the state.
Albemarle Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Camblos has had his cap set for a local judgeship for a long time. Will Peatross’ retirement be his golden opportunity?
Apparently, there’s no uniformity for selecting judges. State legislators will decide how the process will be handled, says State Delegate David Toscano, a Democrat who represents Charlottesville. After that, a nominee will surface through the House and Senate Courts of Justice Committees. Both Toscano and Rob Bell, a Republican delegate who represents much of Albemarle County, sit on that committee in the House.
The General Assembly will also take the recommendation of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Bar Association’s Judicial Endorsements Committee, which accepted applications for its support through November 29. That committee of local lawyers will deem worthy candidates “qualified” or “highly qualified.”
“I would like to think that the delegates would put a lot of confidence in the recommendation of the Bar,” Toscano says. “They have a lot of experience with each of these candidates’ understanding of the law and their judicial temperament,” he adds.
But, according to local lawyer (and Peatross’ friend) Ron Tweel, the influence of the Bar’s judicial endorsements committee “has significantly declined.” “I regret that this has turned into a political issue, whereas for the first 25 years of my practice it was a quality issue,” Tweel says. “The vast majority of the Bar is distressed by that.”
Local lawyers agree that the process has become more politicized. But local political parties say they have no formal plans to intervene in the process.
“It’s not a primary focus of ours,” Keith Drake, chairman of the Albemarle Republicans says. Drake says he’ll encourage individual party members to voice their opinions on candidates to Delegate Rob Bell.
Potential candidates include Albemarle Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Camblos and Charlottesville General District Court Judge Robert Downer. Camblos could not be reached for comment, but Downer says he’s written a letter to the Bar seeking its support. “I do believe that [the General Assembly gives] a great deal of credence to the endorsement,” says Downer.
That may or may not be the case this year. In selecting a judge, Toscano says, “the challenge is always the extent to which politics intervenes.”