Judicial interviews with a joint meeting of the House Courts of Justice and Senate Judiciary Committee are normally calm formalities as legislators ask the judicial candidates perfunctory questions. But on Tuesday, a virtual meeting to interview 29 candidates for juvenile and domestic relations court, district court, and circuit court judges turned emotional.
Each candidate is first vetted by the senators and delegates from their local jurisdiction before being facing the joint meeting for the interviews, a process that normally gets little public attention.
Assistant Bar Council with the Virginia State Bar Kathleen Uston was first on the agenda as a candidate for the 18th Judicial Circuit Court in Alexandria. She faced about ten minutes of in-depth questioning on background and qualifications from Senator Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond.)
Morrissey, a former prosecutor, told The Virginia Star that normally, “Most of the process is simple softball questions like, ‘Tell us why you want to be a judge? Tell us why you want to go on the circuit court?’ That’s not our role. Our role is to determine if the people are qualified, and my questions were directed towards that.”
In the interview, Morrissey seemed dissatisfied with Uston’s answers, and eventually Delegate Marcus Simon (D-Fairfax) asked how long Morrissey would continue. Morrissey then pointed out that although Uston hadn’t disclosed any connections with a law firm, her husband was a partner in a law firm with Simon.
Morrissey asked, “Did you not think that connection was worth mentioning?”
Uston replied, “I beg your your pardon sir. I thought the question sought a connection for me, and not for my family members”
Then, the meeting went to a public comment period, a time where normally members of the public make statements, and the chair gives the candidate an opportunity to respond. Three public speakers spent several minutes asking Uston emotionally charged questions in a back-and-and forth about details of cases speakers said she had been involved in.
“We don’t need another insider,” Janice Grenadier said. “My question to her is how she’s going to handle cases like this where there’s such great friendships between her and the opposing counsel?”
Rhetta Daniel said, “She’s privy to all kinds of secret information which she can use against people who come in as litigants or lawyers and people will never know it.”
Halfway through the public comments, multiple Senators interrupted asking chairman Senator John Edwards (D-Roanoke) to step in, frustrated by the uncontrolled public questioning of Uston.
Senator Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) said, “There’s never been a hearing like this, John.” Senator Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) added, “There’s never been a give and take between a witness and a candidates.” Lucas added, “Not ever, not in 30 years. This is awful.”
“This is a f****ng s***show,” Senator Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover) said while accidentally unmuted, according to reporter Amy Friedenberger. However, the video of the meeting was edited before it was posted online.
McDougle told The Star that he didn’t ask for the video to be edited.
“My word choice might have been improper but the sentiment that it relays is spot on,” he said.
Simon apologized to Uston at the end of the interview. He said that normally, the candidate is introduced by a legislator before the interview begins. He said, “Had that happened, I had planned to disclose to the group that I was happy to see Katie here, and that I call her Katie because, in fact, her husband and I are law partners.”
“I talked to her about this hearing having sat though many many of these over the years. And I have to apologize to her, because what you just experienced is nothing like what I described,” Simon continued. “And I will tell you that that is because that is nothing like what I have ever seen before.”
Uston said, “My thanks to all of you for your time. I am hopeful that I will be able to fill the spot in the 18th circuit.”
Some candidates in the meeting following Uston experienced more casual interviews, while others faced tough questions. Now, the committees will meet separately, voting on certification of the candidates. Certified candidates will then be voted on by the full House and Senate, which is normally a formality.
Morrissey explained the Uston interview: “I thought the questions from the public were inappropriate,” he told The Star. “However, my questions were not spicy, not aggressive. What they were was focused on whether this person is qualified.”
McDougle said it’s appropriate for legislators to ask tough questions in the interview.
He said, “Legislators have certainly questioned potential judges, or judges up for reappointment, in depth on particular topics. Sometimes this has gone for minutes, sometimes it’s gone for hours. That is part of what our responsibility is.”
“I’ve never seen, over 20 years, the public coming in and doing a running cross examination dialogue, with a judge or judicial candidate, not going through the chair and just having that direct conversation,” he said.”
McDougle said even the members questioning should be controlled by the chair.
“It’s supposed to be an orderly, direct process that goes through the chair, respectful,” he said. “You don’t have to like the answers, but it should be a process. It cannot devolve down to just a back and forth. That is not proper.”
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