In judgeship fight, GOP convenes kangaroo court

Near the corner of a dingy, crowded committee room, House Deputy Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, was quietly chatting this past Wednesday with lobbyists for the National Rifle Association and another gun-rights group, the Virginia Citizens Defense League. They were working out details of an evolving, then-secret deal between Gov. Terry McAuliffe and the Republican leadership to fully restore concealed-handgun privileges for Virginians in return for ways to strip dangerous stalkers of their firearms and to take a baby step toward closing the gun-show loophole.

Unfolding in plain view, the largely unknown negotiation led to a rare bipartisan agreement — leaked Thursday and officially announced Friday — on one of the more contentious issues separating the governor and General Assembly. Another, roiling since August, was about to be thrashed out anew in the same room in the General Assembly Building where Gilbert and the lobbyists were conferring. This time, it was a shootout over judicial patronage and whether a prized seat on the Virginia Supreme Court should be dispensed by McAuliffe or the legislature’s Republican majority.

Possession may be nine-tenths of the law, but that doesn’t mean Jane Marum Roush gets to keep the seat on the high court to which McAuliffe appointed her last summer.

Republicans are determined to fire her, though, to their surprise, they are being thwarted by one of their own: Glen Sturtevant a freshman senator from Richmond. Republicans huff and puff that Roush’s selection, because of a parliamentary quirk, was unconstitutional, a notion roundly rejected by many in the legal community and depicted in the press for what it really is: a thinly disguised effort to further trivialize McAuliffe by denying him an infrequent legacy-building opportunity for a governor — making an appointment to Virginia’s court of last resort.

At a meeting of the House courts committee, of which Gilbert is a senior member, Republicans took another step toward teeing up Roush for removal. Roush, a former circuit court judge from Fairfax County, was interviewed along with their preference for the court, Judge Rossie Alston of the Virginia Court of Appeals.

It was a fascinating contrast: A poised Roush recalling the breadth and details of her work, including an annexation case in Big Stone Gap, in remote Southwest Virginia, far from the teeming Washington suburbs. She said she had no doubt her appointment by McAuliffe comported with the constitution. Alston, an African-American, quietly depicted himself as a collegial, veteran jurist who would model himself on a longtime chief justice, the late Harry Carrico. Early in his 42 years on the court, Carrico wrote the 1966 majority opinion upholding Virginia’s since-junked ban on interracial marriage.

The courts committee, whose deliberations were monitored from a front-row seat by Senate Republican Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, declared both qualified, leaving the selection of a justice to the full House of Delegates — read: the 66 Republicans in the 100-member chamber. The sprawling GOP juggernaut guarantees Alston the majority vote in the House required by the Virginia constitution.

But judges must also receive a majority vote in the Virginia Senate.

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