Loudoun’s legal community is pushing state lawmakers on the apparent fast-tracking of a candidate to fill an empty seat on the circuit court bench, going around the usual review and recommendations by the Loudoun Bar Association.
As Loudoun moves closer to filling its long-sought-after fourth seat on the Loudoun Circuit Court, attorneys and state legislators are scrambling to determine who will take the seat. Five Loudoun attorneys have gone to the Loudoun Bar seeking its endorsement: Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Sean Morgan; Lorrie Sinclair and Matthew Snow, who are partners in the same Leesburg law firm; Leesburg attorney Danell Palladine; and Kristin Quirk, an associate at Whitbeck Cisneros McElroy. Morgan and Sinclair were among the candidates considered for the seat two years ago.
But the members of the General Assembly’s Courts of Justice Committees seem to have someone else in mind already.
Fauquier County Commonwealth’ Attorney James P. Fisher did not meet with the Loudoun Bar, instead proceeding directly to become the first and only candidate to appear before a joint session of the House and Senate Courts of Justice Committees, which will determine which candidates are qualified to be appointed to judgeships during the upcoming session. Fauquier Now reported the hearing was three minutes long, and Fisher faced no questions.
No Loudoun representatives serve on either Courts of Justice committee.
Fisher served as deputy commonwealth’s attorney in Loudoun before being appointed to Fauquier’s top prosecutor post in 2011 and then elected to a full term in 2015. His term expires in 2019.
During a public hearing with Loudoun’s state lawmakers on Monday, Loudoun’s legal community pushed state lawmakers to oppose that appointment until the local bar has a chance to run local candidates through the usual vetting process. The Loudoun Bar’s Judicial Qualifications Evaluation Committee was scheduled to interview candidates Tuesday, Dec. 18, according to committee Chairwoman Rhonda Paice. The Bar is scheduled to meet Jan. 9 to vote on its recommendations.
Loudoun Bar Association President Josh Steward said he was “concerned that Loudoun County seems to have been pushed out of the process.”
“That ultimately is going to be a judge that sits right over there,” he said, gesturing across King Street toward the Loudoun County courts complex, “Who’s going to be doling out justice for the citizens of Loudoun County.”
Attorney Tom Plofchan said the process is not transparent, and encouraged state lawmakers not to “engage in any backdoor dealing.”
“Not everyone the Bar recommends gets the first nod, we accept that,” Plofchan said. “However, there needs to be transparency, because this is America. There needs to be respect for the citizens, because they take their time and they make a concerted effort to do what’s best for us.”
Paice said the Bar is moving quickly to get state lawmakers their recommendation before the next General Assembly session begins. Some Loudouners already have a particular local candidate in mind. Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Plowman introduced Morgan to lawmakers. And several speakers pushed to appoint Sinclair, who would be the first black judge on the Loudoun bench if selected.
“How is it that we expect justice when there’s cultural incompetence on the bench?” said Pastor Michelle Thomas, the newly installed president of the Loudoun County NAACP. “We must change that.”
After years of lobbying by the local delegation, the General Assembly in 2015 approved a fifth 20th Circuit judgeship—a fourth in Loudoun—to help the circuit handle its mounting caseload. However, it has been working shorthanded for the past two years.
The vacancy was created when Judge Burke F. McCahill retired late in 2016.
Leesburg attorney Alex N. Levay had been poised to take that seat, having won the endorsement by the Loudoun Bar Association and ruled as qualified by the General Assembly in 2017.
But rather than fill the seat, the Assembly stripped funding for the judgeship, leaving it empty. The seat remained authorized but unfunded until May of this year, when the state legislature passed a budget that funded every judgeship in the state, effective July 1.
For the past two years, Levay remained the likely candidate join the bench. However, he withdrew his name from consideration last month because of family matters that will require more of his time.
After receiving Levay’s notice, the Loudoun Bar put out a call to solicit interest from other candidates.