What's not in dispute is that Loudoun County has a judge-shortage crisis. What is in dispute is whether politics is hindering action on that crisis.
Loudoun Republican members of the General Assembly held a press conference Friday on the steps of the Loudoun County Courthouse to take hold of the issue and charge that state Sen. Mark Herring (D-33rd) single-handedly organized the Democratic caucus to block the appointment of 20th Circuit Court judge-nominee, William Atwill of Leesburg.
But it's unclear whether Herring had the will or even the sway to block Atwill's nomination in the 20-Republican, 20-Democrat Virginia Senate. According to Herring, members of both parties had severe concerns about Atwill's judicial temperament and what transpired in the Senate's Courts of Justice Committee.
The answer could well come from Sen. Jill Vogel (R-27th), a conservative who represents a portion of Loudoun yet didn't attend the press conference alongside Sen. Dick Black (R-13th) and Dels. David Ramadan (R-87th), Joe May (R-33rd), Randy Minchew (R-10th) and 10th Congressional District Republican Committee Chairman John Whitbeck.
Vogel, who sits on the Senate Courts of Justice Committee, which reviews the commonwealth's judges-to-be, has not responded to multiple requests seeking comment.
With Loudoun County Circuit Court Judge James Chamblin's retirement April 1 and Judge Thomas Horne stepping down Dec. 1, the 20th Circuit – Loudoun, Fauquier and Rappahannock counties – faces severe case overload for only two or three judges, the Republicans commented. The General Assembly last week granted funding for Chamblin's replacement, but with Atwill's rejection, that position remains vacant.
“It's not overly dramatic at all to say that Loudoun County's judicial system is in a bit of a state of crisis,” Whitbeck said Friday. “ … we are now in a situation where two judges are having to do the work of what really 'ought to be four or five judges in one of the fastest growing counties in the country.”
Black, Ramadan, Minchew and May hammered home the point that Atwill was highly recommended by the Loudoun County Bar Association and approved by the House of Delegates Courts of Justice Committee. The Republicans said flatly that Herring, a candidate for attorney general, is just playing politics.
Ramadan claimed Herring has a personal “vendetta” against Atwill that sparked his unwillingness to support the veteran litigator for the bench.
Herring, however, said he was told by several senators, both Republicans and Democrats, that they would not endorse Atwill due to concerns over his temperament. The Democrat said numerous questions arose at Mr. Atwill’s hearing with the upper chamber's Courts of Justice Committee hearing.
And “any Senator had the chance to nominate Mr. Atwill [on the senate floor], but none stepped forward to do so,” Herring said Friday. “If any senator truly supported him, they would have nominated him, but there were too many questions about his judicial temperament and no one would sign on to his nomination.”
Herring also noted he would've preferred to have seen a woman nominated, given the circuit bench is currently all males.
When Black was asked during the press conference why he didn't nominate Atwill on the floor, Black said he was told by his colleagues the Democrats were not going to let his nomination pass.
The local Republicans are now urging Gov. Bob McDonnell to make a recess appointment of Atwill, which would have him taking the position in July. Whomever McDonnell appoints, however, may opt to decline, given he or she would be up for nomination and approval again in January 2014.
The people who are going to suffer from the judge shortage, Black said, are those trying to issue restraining orders, innocent prisoners waiting for release and other accused who deserve a day in court.
“We continue to believe that Mr. Atwill was a superb choice for judge,” Black said.
Herring said he doesn't have to agree with a judge's personal views to endorse them for the bench.
“But when it is apparent that someone can’t hear other opinions or set aside their views and apply the law, then they are not equipped to handle the job,” he said.