Power play: General Assembly Republicans do that thing they do

For a few moments, former attorney general was a contender for the Supreme Court of Virginia. File photo For a few moments, former attorney general was a contender for the Supreme Court of Virginia. File photo

So here’s the thing: For many who don’t pay close attention, Virginia’s legislature still tends to be viewed through a prism of bipartisan compromise. It is still considered, by some, as an exemplar of the fabled Virginia way, in which all arguments are settled through convivial relations and principled debate, and all members of the General Assembly are equal partners in our great, ongoing democratic experiment.

Well, if  you needed yet another reminder that this idea is an absurd fantasy, the events of the past few weeks should serve as a bracing tonic. In reality, the modern era of the General Assembly has been the story of a rapacious Republican majority riding roughshod over a hapless Democratic minority, with a few periods of incremental gains by team blue soon reversed by team red.

The list of egregious maneuvers by the assembly’s elephants is long, especially on the Senate side (the House of Delegates is so effectively gerrymandered that the Republicans can basically do whatever they want, whenever they want). There was that time they took advantage of the absence of Senator Henry Marsh—a 79-year-old civil rights veteran who was attending President Obama’s second inaugural—to ram through a Republican-friendly redistricting plan. Or the time they bribed Democratic Senator Phil Puckett with offers of a plum position with the state tobacco commission and a judgeship for his daughter to secure his resignation (thereby regaining the majority and dooming Medicaid expansion). Good times!

Which brings us to the strange saga of Judge Stephen R. McCullough, the man who just got a coveted 12-year appointment to the state supreme court. As we have previously documented, the justice that McCullough replaced, Jane Roush, is a well-qualified and respected judge who should have been confirmed without issue. But Senate Republicans oppose almost anything that Governor Terry McAuliffe is for, so they have been working for months to nullify his appointment.

The Republicans’ first attempt to replace Roush was transparently cynical, as they put forward an African-American Court of Appeals judge, Rossie D. Alston, in the apparent hope that they could garner a few Democratic votes to put a historic third black judge on the court. But that plan backfired, as the elephants couldn’t even muster enough votes from the Republican Senate majority to confirm Alston.

So then the weirdness really began. In an unprecedented flurry of activity, Senate Republicans apparently considered a wide variety of options, and then announced they were going to put forward and confirm former attorney general (and losing candidate for governor) Ken Cuccinelli. But before the liberal outrage machine could even warm up, the Cooch withdrew his name from consideration (leaving open the delicious possibility that he will challenge Ed Gillespie for the Republican gubernatorial nomination next year).

Finally, in a surprise move, Senate Republicans quickly elevated deeply conservative Court of Appeals Judge McCullough to the commonwealth’s highest court, going from nomination to confirmation by both chambers in just two days. No one could really explain why McCullough was picked over other possible candidates, although the fact that he worked under Cuccinelli in the attorney general’s office and has expressed admiration for late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia might have had something to do with it.

But one thing is certain: With their reckless disregard of precedent and destructive desire to win at all costs, the assembly’s elephants have once again shown that they are more than happy to trample their opponents—and the very idea of bipartisan cooperation—to get their way. After all, that’s the new Virginia way.

Odd Dominion is an unabashedly liberal, twice- monthly op-ed column covering Virginia politics.

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