Sunday, January 14, 2007

On judgeships

Jeff Schapiro writes this week that Chad Dotson might get a general district court judgeship in the Lee-Scott-Wise-Norton district.

Mr. Schapiro's column implies that Chad's main qualification is that as a Republican politico in the far Southwest he is connected with Delegate Kilgore and Senator Wampler, who decide such things as who becomes a state court judge in this part of the state.

Indeed, most judges are former party regulars, going back to the origins of the United States. The concept of judicial review originated in the case of one such appointee, William Marbury, one of the midnight judges named by the Adams administration as they were on their way out, who filed a petition for writ of mandamus against the new Secretary of State, James Madison, to get him to turn over his commission to some judicial post in the District of Columbia. The new Jefferson administration had no intention of letting Marbury in. The Chief Justice John Marshall, himself a Federalist appointee, famously enhanced the power of the Court while declaring it was powerless to grant Marbury's petition, concluding that the act of Congress authorizing such writs was itself unconstitutional.

The problem of judicial selection is not figuring out how to avoid the selection of lawyers who were politically-active, because many of them are the best and the brightest, but rather how to improve the chances of picking the best and the brightest, and not merely those who were politically-active.

Chad Dotson, separate and apart from his blogging, has a better resume than many - he is a well-educated (U.Va. and Georgetown Law), well-spoken, amply-experienced, and good-humored fellow. I don't know that he is in line for a judgeship, but if he is, that's a good outcome, even if the process by which Virginia judges are selected is not always the best it could be.

I have no doubt that we do better in Virginia, I think, than in surrounding states where the judges are elected, which leads to some degree of demagoguery of complex issues (one fellow in Tennessee declared in his campaign ads that he was "The Truth Machine") plus the ever-present issue of money - how can judges ignore their knowledge of who did and did not contribute to their campaign coffers.

Something that strikes me as odd is the proposal this year from Delegate Kilgore that would allow an exception to the residency requirement for circuit court judges "to any sitting judge who resides within the Commonwealth of Virginia upon property that is located contiguous to his respective circuit." Is there some judge out there who doesn't live in his or her circuit? How strange. One mostly-sensible limitation on whom the legislators can select for local judgeships is that they have only the local lawyers to pick from.

No comments: