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Leaders split over choice of judge

•  Recent Cases     updated  2008/03/02 21:00


Roanoke Valley legislators have only one week left in the General Assembly session to appoint a new judge in the General District Court that serves Roanoke, Roanoke County and Salem.

The Roanoke Valley delegation, which consists of three Republicans and two Democrats in the Senate and House of Delegates, is split on who should fill the vacancy left in the 23rd Judicial District by Roanoke County General District Court Judge Julian Raney's retirement.

If legislators can't come to a consensus, the circuit judges in the district will appoint someone to fill the vacancy until at least next year.

The two candidates up for consideration, Salem City Councilman Chris Clemens and Roanoke Commonwealth's Attorney Donald Caldwell, will visit the Capitol today for interviews.

In recent years, Republicans held majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly and therefore controlled appointment of judges. That would have hurt Caldwell, an active Democrat, had it been the case again this year.

But Democrats won a slim majority in the Senate last November.

"The House has its prerogative, the Senate has its prerogative, and we've got to come up with a match," said Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke.

Asked if he expects the Roanoke Valley delegation to agree on a candidate, Del. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, said: "I don't know the answer to that."

The Roanoke Bar Association and Salem/Roanoke Bar Association have each endorsed Clemens for the job. But that's only one factor that the legislators take into consideration when making a decision.

Edwards, like the other four legislators in the delegation, is complimentary of both candidates, saying that either would make a fine judge. He has so far declined to name which he favors. Instead, he said, he'd take that up with the rest of the delegation after Monday's interviews.

Griffith said he is supporting Clemens for the judgeship, but emphasized that he has no problems with Caldwell.

"The reason is he [Clemens] has been endorsed by the two local bar associations," said Griffith, the House majority leader and member of the House Courts of Justice Committee.

Meanwhile, Del. Onzlee Ware, D-Roanoke, said he's supporting Caldwell because he has more experience than Clemens and because he lives in Roanoke.

"If you look at the last several judges, all were able but not one lived in the city of Roanoke," Ware said. "Roanoke deserves a judge who lives in the city."

Del. William Fralin, R-Roanoke, said he won't decide between the candidates until after their interviews today and added, "I think both of those candidates are well qualified."

But Fralin, who also sits on the House Courts of Justice Committee, said bar association endorsements would carry weight as he sizes up the candidates. All Roanoke Valley judgeships since 2001 have been filled by candidates who received a bar association endorsement.

"The bar association is very important because these are the folks who are very familiar with the people seeking the post," Fralin said.

Ware places less value on the bar endorsements. He said many of its members are corporate lawyers unfamiliar with the court for which they're endorsing a candidate.

"More than half the members who vote in the bar don't practice in General District Court," Ware said.

Freshman Sen. Ralph Smith, R-Botetourt County -- the only non-lawyer in the Roanoke Valley delegation -- is outright skeptical of bar endorsements. He said that because the lawyers in the bar will be practicing before the judge who's appointed, the endorsements represent conflicts of interest for the bars' members.

"If I'm going to serve in your courtroom for the next 20 years, the human nature is, 'How are you going to react to me?' " Smith said. "You can't take that out of it, and that's where I see a conflict of interest. I don't know that it takes an attorney's knowledge to find out who would be a good, fair judge."

That also extends, Smith said, to the 45 General Assembly members who are lawyers by profession.

"I understand it's about 32 percent of the members of the General Assembly who are attorneys, and that's a conflict of interest," Smith said. "In fact, everybody involved in this situation is an attorney except me. I'm not lobbying to say I should pick the judges, but there should be another mechanism" for appointing judges.


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