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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Pitchfork Rebellion contributes Public Policy Op-Ed piece to Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy

The Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy featured an article by one of our founders
in their Op-Ed section this week - the topic: Virginia's inherently flawed judicial selection process. This piece touches on many of the flaws in our current process and offers some practical solutions. We'd like to know: how much is the state of VA spending on rehab for judges, also known as the "Judges Helping Judges" program? If Chief Justice Hassell cannot find money in the budget for the Judicial Performance Evaluation program, why is he spending money hand over fist to rehabilitate troubled judges and calling for pay raises for VA judges?

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Richmond Times Lead Editorial: Pitchfork Rebellion and Sunshine

Today's Richmond Times lead editorial is on the topic of judicial selection in VA and features The Pitchfork Rebellion.

The Richmond Times gets it. They liken Virginia's closed door selection of judges to "proceedings the Ottoman Empire would have considered baffling, if not inscrutable." We could not agree more. The way Virginia selects its judges is a regression of hundreds of years to the days of the British star chambers, meetings of secret administrative bodies that met between 1398-1641. The British did away with star chamber proceedings because their secrecy cast doubt upon the legitimacy of the proceedings. Yet, here we are in the 21st century with our state legislators meeting in secret to debate the merits of particular judicial candidates.

We need to reform judicial selection in VA to allow for complete transparency in the process and merit based selection of judges.

Richmond Times: Judging Chief Justice Hassell

We thought our readers might be interested in this piece by the Richmond Times about VA Supreme Court chief justice Leroy Rountree Hassell:

The million dollar questiion is this: will chief justice Hassell and the VA Supreme Court dip into their budget to fund the Judicial Performance Evaluations now that the VA General Assembly has just cut $600,000 from this budget?

Or will there not be any evaluations in the future despite the fact that our law requires each judge to be evaluated under the JPE program?

VA Pilot Editorial: Misguided and Judgmental

This week the VA Pilot wrote an editorial on judicial selection in VA.
Their take on The Pitchfork Rebellion? They think, "pitchforks imply a level of haste and emotionalism that should be replaced with caution and sound reason."

Their editorial writer, just a few hundred words later, goes on to contradict the above warning of avoiding haste in judicial reforms by calling on State leaders to, "embrace more immediate opportunities for reform." The operative, contradictory word being "immediate."

The Pitchfork Rebellion has called for transparency in the VA judicial selection process as well as merit based selection of judges. We recognize these reforms will take time. We've started an important public dialogue about judicial selection in our state and are working to be a catalyst for meaningful change in this regard. Our positions are reasoned, thoughtful and legally sound. With all due respect to the VA Pilot editorial writer, how does she propose implementing "immediate" reforms when the General Assembly is out of session? Perhaps the VA Pilot's ideas for reform were hasty and not well thought out.

The VA Pilot editorial writer concludes with, "Pitchforks rarely result in long-standing improvements." We beg to differ. Most human progress has stemmed from citizen rebellions. Our country was founded by men and women who broke away from Great Britain. More recently, Communism fell because of peaceful, populist movements such as Solidarity.
Our judiciary is at stake - we either accept the status quo (a system that everyone acknowledges is broken) or we work tirelessly to change and improve it.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Ruth Bader Ginsburg hints at upcoming US Supreme Court opening

US Supreme Court justice Rith Bader Ginsburg told law students today the US Supreme Court will surely have a new justice on the high court soon.

The ailing 75 year old Ginsburg will perhaps retire. But since the US Constitution does not impose term limits on US Supreme Court justices or a mandatory retirement age, US Supreme Court justices typically serve until nearly the end of their lives, notwithstanding serious health problems.

Virginia has a mandatory retirement age of 70 for judges. The problem is that VA judges can retire and then go back to work! Yes, that's right, they "retire" then serve as substitute judges in their twilight years. Case in point, Jean Harrison Clements recently retired from the Court of Appeals of VA, yet she intends to continue serving as a judge pro tempore.

First, from an economic standpoint alone, this hurts the taxpayers of the Commonwealth of Virginia since these "retired" judges work in retirement adds pensionable earnings to their retirement pensions. In other words, since a pension is based principally upon the annuitant's age and years of service, adding more service at an old age can be quite lucrative for older judges. And the corollary is, the additional pension benefits these old judges accrue are quite costly to Virginia taxpayers, who ultimately fund the state's pension system for employees.

Second, statistics show that nearly half of all people age 80 (and many in their 70's for that matter) have dementia. Do we really want folks who may be losing (or who have already lost) their mental faculties hearing important cases? If your judge could not remember what he ate for breakfast, do you think he could recall detailed legal arguments and facts of cases?

News flash: Virginia has a massive budget deficit. And the US economy is in a deep recession.
Why are we making poor financial decisions that only benefit old judges?

Virginia should make age 70 a truly mandatory retirement age and not allow judges to serve in any capacity beyond age 70.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Can Judges Be Bought?

Good question. Parade Magazine wrote an article on this topic today.

Take the famous WV case before the US Supreme Court now, how could the judge who received over $3,000,000 in campaign contributions possibly be impartial when hearing this case involving his major campaign contributor?

Money talks. It defies common sense to think that this judge would not have been influenced in his decision making by $3,000,000.

Even if there is not actual bias, there is the appearance of a conflict of interests. That should be enough for a judge to recuse himself.

Dave Albo "digs out" and finds Judge Finch's "Performance Evaluation"

This just in... The Pitchfork Rebellion has obtained a copy of a letter dated March 5, 2009 from Delegate David Albo (Chairman of the House Courts of Justice Committee in VA) to Elizabeth Haring. Dave Albo says he cleaned up his desk this week and found Judge Finch's performance evaluation after telling her a month ago he threw it away.

A little background first... on January 15, 2009, Ms. Haring sent Dave Albo a FOIA request for Judge Finch's unofficial "performance" evaluation prepared by the Fairfax Bar Association. After himming and hawwing, Dave Albo told Ms. Haring he threw it away.

Ms. Haring, not to be deterred, sued Dave Albo on February 18, 2009, in a landmark VA Supreme Court case that is ongoing. Ms. Haring complained that Dave Albo destroyed a public document that she is entitled to under FOIA and asked for various forms of relief. The case challenges Judge Finch's re-appointment on the grounds it was procedurally defective, unlawful and illicit. The thrust of her case is that the state did not do an official Judicial Performance Evaluation for Judge Finch, even though it is mandated by law (VA Code 17.1-100). Instead, the Fairfax Bar Association, a private member organization which Judge Finch belongs to, sent an "evaluation" to the local delegation. This evaluation was the source upon which the local delegation relied in their decision to re-appoint Judge Finch.

Now, back to Dave Albo's March 5 letter to Ms. Haring. It states, in part, "Today, March 5, while "digging out" stacks of mail and information on my desk in the General Assembly building, I found one copy. Thus, I must amend my FOIA response."

Dave Albo goes on to say that the Fairfax Bar Association "evaluation" of Judge Finch was given to him on the assumption it would not be made available to the public. He then goes on to say that, although his position is that the evaluations "should be available to the public,"
he gave it to his attorney and will not give it to Ms. Haring.

To add insult to injury, Dave Albo copies the Fairfax Bar Association on the letter, advising them that future judicial evaluations he receives ,"will be made available to the public, if requested."

So, let's get this straight, Dave Albo will give other people judicial evaluations by the Fairfax Bar Association, but not give it to Ms. Haring? That's right, Dave Albo wants to force the issue and make Ms. Haring subpoena the evaluation in order to get it.

Dave Albo's position, which is not well taken or legally correct, is that the Fairfax Bar Association evaluation is his "working document" and therefore exempt from FOIA.

Sounds like Dave Albo is grasping at straws and trying to find some weak legal argument to keep Ms. Haring from getting Judge Finch's performance evaluation.

We'd like to know: does Dave Albo really think he can violate FOIA? The VA Supreme Court rescinded its order requiring the official Judicial Performance Evaluations to be secret. There is no statute or Rule of the VA Supreme Court which requires judicial evaluations to be secret.
So on what legal basis does Dave Albo think he can withhold a public document that is subject to FOIA? Yep, you guessed it, on the assumption that the document would not be made public. On a gentleman's ageeement.

Sorry Dave, but that does not cut it.

Friday, March 6, 2009

DC Examiner: Where are the judge complaints?

The below piece appeared in the DC Examiner yesterday:

UPDATE: Pitchfork Rebellion: Where are the judge complaints?
POSTED March 5, 2009 4:29 PM
A member of the Pitchfork Rebellion found this little tidbit in the Virginia Code, which states that the Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission (JIRC) has to keep track of all complaints filed against members of the judiciary and publish them every year:§ 17.1-905. Annual report.On or before December 1 of each year, the Commission shall publish a report detailing the activities of the Commission for the prior year. The report shall include the number of complaints filed with the Commission; the number of complaints originating from attorneys, judges, court employees, or the general public; the number of complaints dismissed based on (i) failure to fall within the jurisdiction of the Commission, (ii) failure to state a violation of the Canons of Judicial Conduct, or (iii) failure of the Commission to reach a conclusion that the Canons were breached; the number of complaints for which the Commission concluded that the Canons of Judicial Conduct were breached; and the number of cases from which the staff or any member of the Commission recused himself due to an actual or possible conflict. (1997, cc. 914, 921, § 2.1-37.8:1; 2001, c. 844.)

EDITOR'S COMMENTS: This is a good question. Where are the judge complaints?

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Virginia FOIA Expert Weighs in on VA Judicial Selection Process

The Pitchfork Rebellion spoke to Meaghan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government ( about the lack of transparency in Virginia's judicial selection process.

Ms. Rhyne, who is an attorney by profession, weighed in on the secretive situation in Virginia when it comes to our judicial selection process,

"whether the judiciary or the legislature handles the performance evaluations, the judicial selection and retention process should be as transparent as possible, when possible, since it is the citizens of the Commonwealth appearing before these judges who will be the most directly impacted by the decision."

We could not agree more. Secretive closed door meetings cast doubt upon the legitimacy of the proceedings.

Stay tuned... we will be breaking some headline news soon.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Pitchfork Rebellion: Washington Post Article on Flawed Judicial Selection Process in VA features The Pitchfork Rebellion

The Pitchfork Rebellion: Washington Post Article "Va. Judge Selection Process Criticized: Group Challenges Lack of Public Input" on Flawed Judicial Selection Process in VA features The Pitchfork Rebellion

Dave Albo Opposes Term Limits for All VA Judges?

This just in... a citizen wrote to Dave Albo, Chairman of the House Courts of Justice Committee last week asking him to support term limits for all VA judges. This is the verbatim correspondence dated February 26, 2009:

Citizen: "This is to encourage you to Institute Term Limits for ALL State Judges."

Dave Albo's Response: "The filing deadline has long passed for this year. You would need to get your Delegate or Senator to submit it for next year. The problem with this idea, and I think it sounds good, is that when a lawyer gives up his law practice to become a Judge, he has to disolve the entire practice. So if there are term limits, Judges would be totally out of work and unable to pay their bills after the expiration of their term. Dave"

Wait a second! We disagee with Dave Albo on this. If a circuit court judge had term limits (let's say 2 terms), he/she would know that they had a maximum term of 16 years on the bench. We think the judge would have plenty of time during those 16 years to find a new job before the end of his/her term. The McCammon Group hires plenty of retired judges. If the judge has a good reputation, he/she would have no trouble starting their own practice or joining another practice.
Only the bad judges would be "totally out of work and unable to pay their bills after the expiration of their term."

Ironically, many of the Courts of Justice Committee members supported Del. Bill Janis' bill to institute term limits for the VA Supreme Court Chief Justice. (Presumbaly because they do not like Chief Justice Hassell and he is in the midst of his 2nd term). But they will not support term limits for all judges in Virginia. We intend to lobby for new legislation next year that will impose term limits for all judges in Virginia.