By John Celock
The Virginia Republican pick for a state Supreme Court seat was defeated Monday after a Republican senator sided with Democrats, temporarily extending the term of a Democratic appointee.
Sen. John Watkins (R-Powhatan) voted with Democrats to defeat state Court of Appeals Judge Rossie Alston Jr.’s candidacy for the Supreme Court, the News-Advance reported. Republicans were seeking to place Alston on the court and unseat Justice Jane Marum Roush, who was appointed to the court in late July by Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D). A quirk in Virginia’s judicial selection process and a legislative special session mandate Roush’s brief term and has set up a bitter partisan battle in the state.
Watkins’ decision to vote with Democrats set up a 20-20 Senate tie on Alston’s candidacy and allowed Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) to break the tie in favor to defeating Alston. The Senate vote followed bitter debates in the both chambers and the courts committees in the House and Senate.
McAuliffe appointed Roush, a longtime Circuit Court judge in Fairfax County, to the Supreme Court at the end of July filling a vacancy. Under Virginia law, a gubernatorial pick for a judgeship expires 30 days after lawmakers reconvene. Judges in Virginia are picked by the state Legislature. Virginia lawmakers were called into special session Monday to deal with redistricting, allowing for the Republican-dominated Legislature to install their own pick for the Supreme Court.
Roush is allowed to remain on the bench until 30 days from Monday. GOP legislative leaders have already indicated that Roush will not be reappointed to a full 12-year term.
The decision by Republican lawmakers to replace Roush from the bench after a brief term has generated bitter partisan fights, with battles taking turns into both gender and race territory. Roush is a woman, while Alston is black.
During a state House debate Monday, state Del. Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Springfield) praised Roush, who has served two decades as a judge in Fairfax County as “apolitical” and praised McAuliffe’s appointment process as “long, open and transparent.”
Del. Rip Sullivan (D-Arlington) said that he believed that since Roush has been on the Supreme Court for less than a month, it was worse for lawmakers to remove her.
He noted that since Roush gave up her Circuit Court judgeship to join the Supreme Court on August 1, a vote to appoint another justice would remove Roush from the state judiciary.
“The commonwealth is losing her,” Sullivan said. “This is a great loss to the commonwealth.”
House Majority Whip Jackson Miller (R-Manassas) disagreed with Sullivan saying that Roush could have remained on the bench with Republicans offering her a chance to return to her former position on the Circuit Court bench in Fairfax County or a judgeship on the state Court of Appeals. He noted that Roush turned down the other judgeships and also noted that she knew the risks of accepting McAuliffe’s appointment.
Miller also criticized Democrats for their treatment of Alston, saying that he found Alston to be grilled harder than other judicial candidates during a hearing Monday before the House Courts of Justice Committee. He said that Republicans believed that Alston was “slightly more qualified” than Roush for the Supreme Court and noted that Alston received the highest ranking for judicial candidates from four bar associations in the state, while Roush received the highest ranking from three out of four bar associations.
Miller and Del. Timothy Hugo (R-Centreville) both criticized Democrats for calling opposition to Roush a “war on women” and the state Democratic Party comparing top GOP legislative leaders to GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump and that the three “put their misogyny on full display.”
Hugo said that the “Virginia Way” was to “treat people with decency.”
“It’s also the way that if we have disagreements, we don’t call people misogynists,” he said. “We don’t call it a war on women.”
Miller praised both Alston and Roush as “good judges” and accused Democrats of dragging Alston “through the mud” in order to promote Roush.
Lawmakers are set to return to Richmond later this month to take up the Supreme Court seat again before Roush’s term expires in 30 days.
Filler-Corn had used her House floor speech to tell colleagues that Roush should stay.
“Justice Roush does not deserve to be the first justice to be removed from the Supreme Court in 100 years,” Filler-Corn said.