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Monday, December 21, 2009

Judicial Interviews: The Highlights

The Pitchfork Rebellion was present at the Judicial Interviews in Richmond before the Courts of Justice Committee on December 17, 2009.  The committee interviewed a slate of incumbent judges whose terms expire in 2010 as well as several Pro Tempore judges.  Here are the highlights (email us at if you have questions about other judges that were interviewed Dec 17 and are not mentioned below):

Judge Michael Moore (29th Judicial Circuit) came before the committee & was endorsed by his law school classmate Del. Kilgore.

Judge Edward Turner (27th Judicial Distict) announced he will retire at the end of his next term, if he is re-appointed.  Judge Turner is currently age 66.  One committee member inquired about Judge Turner's involvement as a board member for a non-profit land conservation organization.  Judge Turner indicated that his name does not appear on fundraising letters.

Senator John Edwards endorsed Judge William Alexander II (22nd Judicial Circuit).
Sen. Edwards is a long-time friend of Judge Alexander, whom he's known since law school.

Judge M. Lee Stilwell, Jr. (22nd Judicial District) appeared before the committee sporting a long, braided ponytail.  He referred to his courtroom as a place where, "everyone is equal."

Judge Elizabeth Kellas (26th Judicial District) was questioned about her name.  Apparently her married name is Elizabeth Burton, but she goes by Elizabeth Kellas professionally & her husband is a stay-at-home dad.

Judge Julia Cannon (20th Judicial District) was evaluated under the now defunct Judicial Performance Evaluation (JPE) program.  Her JPE indicated she needs improvement in her knowledge of the law & faithfulness to the law.  Del. Albo, chairman of the committee, asked Judge Cannon how she intends to address these apparent shortcomings.  Judge Cannon stated she needs to more diligently read the Court of Appeals and VA Supreme Court case law.  We wonder how a judge who has been sitting on the bench for years would not know the law and worse, why she would not be faithful to it?  Is this the best candidate for Chief Judge of the Loudoun General District Court?  We think not.

Judge Steven Smith (Judge Pro Tempore, 31st Judicial District) was endorsed by Del. Jackson Miller.  Jackson Miller and Judge Smith are friends; they served together on the Manassas City Council.  Part of his qualifications included the following: Judge Smith's father was a circuit court judge - ergo, he must have inherited a judicial gene from his father.

Judge Thomas Gallahue (19th Judicial District) was evaluated under the JPE program.  The JPE showed concerns about his faithfulness to the law and effective communication of decisions.

Judge Mitchell Mutnick (19th Judicial District) said he surveys people to find out their perceptions of his judicial performance.  Survey says: he didn't feel he got a lot of honest answers.

Judge Teena Grodner's JPE (19th Judicial District) revealed concerns about whether she gives consistent treatment to all parties.  

Judge Becky Moore's JPE (18th Judicial District) revealed concerns about fairness & consistency towards all parties.

Two citizens testified against Judge George Varoutsos (17th Judicial District).  Louis John Swallow, Jr. gave a rambling presentation without providing any substantial or credible concerns about the judge. Judge Varoutsos' response - he terminated Mr. Swallow's visitation rights after Mr. Swallow set himself on fire outside the Phillipine Embassy.

Attorney Roy Morris testified about the many problems in Arlington J&DR Court, whose chief Judge Esther Wiggins Lyles is Judge Varoutsos' boss.  Click here to listen to  Roy Morris' compelling testimony:

Judge Varoutsos' JPE revealed concerns about fairness to all parties, consistency & treatment of all parties, and effectiveness of communications.  Our take: time to clean house in Arlington J&DR!

Judge Alfreda Talton-Harris (5th Judicial District) came highly recommended by Senator Lucas, her former sorority sister, long-time friend and former colleague.  Judge Talton-Harris' evaluation was worse than other judges... there were many concerns about her demeanor; folks were primarily concerned she lacked dignity, respect and courtesy towards litigants and was not diligent in her judicial duties (translation: lazy, rude judge).  If she did not have a close relationship to Senator Lucas (which landed her the judgeship in the first place) we doubt she would be on the bench, much less be seeking re-appointment.  Perhaps she ought to update her resume.

Judge Pro Tempore Kenneth Melvin (3rd Judicial Circuit) was an interim appointment by Governor Kaine.  Melvin retired this year from the General Assembly, where he (like other judges in the Commonwealth) served on the Courts of Justice Committee.  Sen. Lucas endorsed Judge Melvin as his neighbor and friend of 25 years.

Judge William Moore, Jr. (3rd Judicial District) was evaluated under the JPE program.  His JPE raised the following issues: patience & treating litigants with dignity, respect & courtesy.

Judge James Matthews (4th Judicial District) just completed his first term.  He was endorsed by Sen. Stolle and Del Barlow, his law school classmate.

Judge Joseph Massey (4th Judicial District) received two JPE evaluations.  The more recent JPE showed 30% of respondents felt he had improved.  To his credit, Judge Massey volunteered that there were 2 complaints against him recently & that he had recused himself from one of the cases.  With a powerful family name like Massey, we anticipate Judge Massey will sail through.

Judge Pro Tempore Jeffrey Shaw (9th Judicial District) has been on the bench since June 1, 2009 as a sub judge.  He came before the committee seeking a full term appointment.  Sen. Tommy Norment endorsed Judge Shaw's candidacy.  His qualifications?  Judge Shaw's father was a judge in the same circuit!  He must have inherited a judicial gene too.

Judge George C. Fairbanks, IV (9th Judicial District) was endorsed by Sen. Tommy Norment.  Sen. Norment and Judge Fairbanks go way back... they've been friends since their days in law school together, when they worked together at the Kings Arms Tavern.  They've also served together in the Army Reserves.  Sen. Norment volunteered that he's appeared before Judge Fairbanks about 200 times.  We're guessing the outcome for Senator Norment's clients was pretty favorable, but that's just a hunch. 

Judge Fairbank's JPE revealed concerns about his respect for litigants and two other issues.

Citizen Gail Lakritz testified against Judge Fairbanks and talked about the problem of domestic violence.  However, Judge Fairbanks did not respond to her testimony.

Judge Ronald Bentsen (7th Judicial District) announced he will not seek another term if re-appointed.
Sen. Tommy Norment endorsed Judge Bentsen, whom he's known since beginning to practice.  Judge Bentsen received an excellent JPE.

Judge Lucretia Carrico (11th Judicial District) serves as chief judge of the Amelia County General District Court, hearing mostly traffic and criminal matters.  Unfortunately, her JPE reveals she falls short in her knowledge of the law, faithfulness to the law.  She admitted her weakness when it comes to knowledge of the law.  With a family name like Carrico and given their history in Virginia's legal community & politics, we suspect she will be re-appointed.  To her credit, she is quite genteel.

Judge Pro Tempore Gregory Carr (12th Judicial District) came seeking an appointment for a full term. Del. Loupassi endorsed Greg, who he's known since he was a clerk.  Del. Albo had coached Judge Carr in the past as well.
The verdict: Virginia's system for selecting judges is deeply flawed.  Its an outdated system where political largesse runs rampant; our elected officials put their friends and cronies on the bench, some judges practically inherit their seats and our judiciary is consequently becoming in-bred. The Roanoke Times summed it up best by saying, "Virginia's judiciary isn't independent.  Judges are beholden to lawmakers for getting and keeping their jobs. That system is broken and should be fixed." 
Its time for merit-based selection of judges.  The future of Virginia's judiciary depends upon it.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Attorney Roy Morris Testimony against Arlington J&DR Judge

DC Attorney Roy Morris testified Dec. 17 before the Courts of Justice Committee in Richmond about the problems in Arlington J&DR Court.  Morris did not mince words about Judge Esther Wiggins-Lyles of Arlington J&DR Court.  Listen to his testimony here:

Read the US Supreme Court brief Roy Morris wrote re: the Dr. Ariel King case by clicking here:

Roanoke Times: Virginia's Judiciary isn't Independent

The Roanoke Times issued an editorial today about the state of Virginia's judiciary and the systemic problems inherent in Virginia's selection process. The Roanoke Times' take on the problem is this -

"Judges are beholden to lawmakers for getting and keeping their jobs. That system is broken and should be fixed"

See the editorial at

Lawyer Blasts Arlington, VA J&DR Court

DC lawyer Roy Morris testified December 17, 2009 before the joint Courts of Justice Committee in Richmond. Morris told the committee that something is rotten in Arlington J&DR -- he insinuated that money is changing hands in Arlington. Morris is a DC attorney who represented Dr. Ariel King, a well-educated African American Jewish woman who lost custody of her little girl.

Morris testified that Arlington J&DR Chief Judge Esther Wiggins-Lyles unlawfully assumed jurisdiction when neither party had resided in VA for 6 months preceding the hearing, then stripped custody from Dr. King. Morris told the committee how his client was told she needed to pay $20,000 to get her child back. Morris further testified about how Dr. King was unable to exercise her Due Process right to appeal & unable to have a trial de novo because the good ol' boy attorney representing the father had a final order entered without her knowledge in an ex-parte hearing.

Dr. King appealed to the Court of Appeals of VA, but was turned down, ostensibly because she mailed a pleading by Priority Mail rather than Registered Mail. The VA Court of Appeals summarily affirmed Judge Wiggins-Lyles ruling. She appealed to the VA Supreme Court, which declined to hear her case. Dr. King has petitioned the US Supreme Court to hear her case (Morris is representing her Pro Bono) -- click on the link to read her US Supreme Court petition:

Judge Esther Wiggins-Lyles will be coming before the Courts of Justice Committee for an interview in December 2010, stay tuned!

Roy Morris' testimony will be available on our blog soon. Click here to read the handout he gave to the Courts of Justice Committee on Dec 17, 2009:

Fairfax Delegation Picks Kassabian, Devine and Nordlund

On December 14, 2009, the Northern VA local delegation interviewed 13 candidates vying to fill three Fairfax County Circuit Court vacancies. The delegation selected Brett Kassabian, Hon. Lorraine Nordlund and Michael Devine after closing the meeting to the public & casting secret ballots.

We'd like to provide you with the highlights of the judicial interviews:

Kassabian, of Oakton, made a point to mention that his uncle was a J&DR judge in Fairfax County. Kassabian's father and brother are also attorneys. Kassabian spent 8.5 years in
the Commonwealth Attorney's office under Horan. Kassabian is in private practice in Annandale, VA. He reported to have been on the bench 300-500 days as a substitute judge. Del. Chap Petersen told the delegation his courthouse mole reported that, "Kassabian is as respectful to a hysterical Pro Se litigant as he is to a partner in a prestigious law firm."

Devine was very articulate. He's practiced primarily in the area of criminal law for over 18 years, during which time he's tried over 100 jury trials. He's served as a substitute judge since 2006 (reporting to have served in that capacity approx. 3X/month). This was Devine's second appearance before the local delegation (he had put his name under consideration in a previous year). Devine mentioned he has taken CLE in Domestic Relations and stressed that his criminal law experience is an asset since litigants can't "snow him."

Judge Lorraine Nordlund has been on the Fairfax bench since 1996 and made the case that she was the most qualified candidate to fill one of the vacancies on the circuit court bench in virtue of her strong judicial experience and domestic relations background. The Fairfax Bar Association (FBA) screening committee did not recommend Nordlund, however. Nordlund's FBA rating was "qualified." A local lawyer who was on the FBA screening committee used his position on the screening committee to play hardball with Judge Nordlund -- he asked Nordlund to reverse a decision she had made in a case he had tried. When Nordlund refused to engage in any quid quo pro, the FBA committee refused to recommend her and only gave her a lame "qualified" rating. Unfortunately there are not any rules to redress problems like this at the local level. The FBA told Nordlund she could either accept the "qualified" ranking or withdraw her name as a candidate. Nordlund took her chances, gave a great presentation to the local delegation and was selected after highlighting her experience teaching other judges, her initiatives to make changes to improve the ASAP program for Hispanics and her work to implement uniform standards when it comes to creditor cases, work for which she has been nationally recognized. Nordlund's experience with the Fairfax Bar Screening Committee highlights how flawed our process for selecting judges is. Nordlund's candidacy could have easily been torpedoed by a self-interested, unethical lawyer from the FBA.

We're glad Brian Hirsch did not make the cut -- his nasal 10 minute presentation to the delegation was, quite frankly, obnoxious and arrogant. Even though Hirsch has extensive domestic relations experience and his friends wrote letters on his behalf supporting his candidacy, one delegation member remarked that there were concerns about his "temperment" and wondered why. Hirsch's response did more to hurt him than help. Mr. Hirsch continues to serve as a substitute judge.

John Tran gave a thoughtful presentation to the delegation - he spoke of his insight & ability to see three sides of every coin. Tran practices mainly in the Federal Court system. He's admitted to practice in both VA and MD and travels extensively to represent clients. Tran's goals, if he were selected, would have been to sustain and improve the Court's reputation, ensure there is a recording of all cases & availability of electronic filing. Tran, who turns 50 years old soon, spoke of the three phases of life: learning, earning and returning to the community. His interest in the judiciary stemmed from his desire to give back to the community. Tran acknowledged the FBA and other local bars were not enamored with him because he's not primarily practicing in Fairfax County. Tran came close to making the cut this year & we hope he will interview again. His breadth of experience and thoughtfulness make him a great candidate.

We also found Alicia Summers' interview interesting. Summers, who is defense counsel for State Farm, was not recommended by the local bar associations because she was "not compassionate."
Summers spoke candidly to the delegation about how the local screening committee grilled her about a case in which her settlement offer was apparently $5,000 less than the settlement value of the injury. Opposing counsel in that case tried to torpedo her candidacy on the basis of that case, which in his mind called into question her "compassion". A member of the local delegation remarked that if that is the standard, all of the candidates would not be "compassionate." Let's face it, Summers' experience in the insurance defense industry gives her a really good grasp of what an injury is really worth -- she would be every ambulance chaser's worst nightware if she were on the bench. Summers aptly stated there are "defects in the process" of selecting judges in VA. We concur.

David Bernhard's candidacy was sunk when it came to light that he forgot to show up for a jury trial and Judge Kendricks detained him for five hours. Even though there was not an order entered, Bernhard, to his credit, disclosed this incident on his application.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Local Delegation to interview Fairfax County judges Dec 14 in Fairfax

The Northern Virginia delegation will interview Fairfax County judges who are up for re-appointment on Monday, December 14. The interviews will take place at:

5 - 9 pm, December 14, 2009
at the NVRC (Northern VA Regional Commission)
3060 Williams Drive (5th floor conference room)
Fairfax, VA

Plan to be there early. Rumor has it litigants unhappy with Judge Grodner and Judge White will
show up to testify...

Fairfax Bar Association Lowers the Bar for Judicial Candidates

This just in... The Fairfax Bar Association has lowered the bar for aspiring Fairfax County judges.
For those of you out there interested in becoming a judge, all you need to do for your screening interview is complete an application and submit a resume of no more than 100 words (yes, that's right, the most they want to know about your career is 100 words, so you don't need much in terms of qualifications to be considered). You might even consider Tweeting your bio if you can get it under 100 words. Keep it short and Tweet.