The Man Who Would Be Judge

Brent Finnegan -- March 3rd, 2008

In December, Bill Helsley was the only one of several local attorneys seeking the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Bar Association (HRBA) endorsement for circuit court judge to receive the necessary two-thirds majority of votes from his colleagues. Thomas Wilson was among those that did not receive two-thirds of that vote. Yet last week, as reported in the DNR, the General Assembly’s Shenandoah Valley Caucus said they’re going to nominate Wilson, not Helsley, for judgeship.

Last week, Harrisonburg’s Judge McGrath retired, and that vacancy needs to be filled. Here is how that works in Virginia:

A circuit court judge is elected for an eight-year term by a majority vote of both houses of the General Assembly. If the General Assembly is not in session when a vacancy occurs, the Governor temporarily appoints (interim appointment) a judge to serve until the General Assembly meets again and can elect a judge for a full term.

Technically, local bar associations have no official say in the matter, but the attorneys that vote to endorse will be working with the new judge. So the question is: is it good policy for politicians (most of whom don’t live in Harrisonburg or Rockingham) to disregard the endorsement of the local bar?

Although judges are not elected the way our senators and delegates are, the process is certainly no less political. Helsley is an active Democrat — he sponsored Mark Warner’s recent visit to Traditions — while the Shenandoah Valley Caucus is comprised of Republicans. Add to that the fact that Wilson’s wife, Kerri, is the the Harrisonburg Republican Committee chair, and the picture becomes more clear.

From Mellott’s DNR article about Wilson:

Wilson became the choice Thursday through informal discussions during the day, but no final vote was taken to select the nominee.

First, Hanger said, he bumped into Del. Matt Lohr, R-Broadway, at an elevator and discussed the candidates.

After talking about the selection with Lohr, Hanger talked to Sens. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, and Jill Holtzman-Vogel, R-Winchester, in the Senate.

With a few more calls, including to Del. Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave, Hanger said a trend emerged by late afternoon.

“It became a consensus that it was his time, this time,” Hanger said of Wilson, who had been considered for previous appointments.

Wilson’s nomination must be approved by both houses in Richmond before it’s a done deal. If this were last year, Wilson would have a better chance of sailing through the General Assembly to judgeship. But now the Democrats control the State Senate. If the Senate plays nice, Wilson may have himself an eight year term as judge. However, the actions of the Shenandoah Valley Caucus may result in a fight, wherein the House says yes, the Senate says no, and the decision will be up to Governor Kaine to make a temporary one-year appointment (likely Bill Helsley).

Typically, the Assembly confirms the governor’s one year appointments during their session the following year.

43 Responses to “The Man Who Would Be Judge”

  1. republitarian says:

    Brent, I had no idea Kerri and Thomas were husband and wife….

    all makes perfect sense now…doesn’t it?

  2. Bubby says:

    This is how you maintain one-party rule in the Republika of Rockingham – you make sure you get a judge that will rubber-stamp your political shenanigans, like nixing the special election for Commissioner of Revenue.

  3. finnegan says:

    I assume so, Myron. Thomas J and TJ. Same person. Am I wrong? If so, I’ll gladly retract it.

  4. Lowell Fulk says:

    You are correct.

  5. finnegan says:

    Bubby, I know that’s what the Valley Republican Caucus is trying to do, but I don’t know that it will work. Relying on (or expecting) bipartisanship in GA is thin ice these days.

    I think the rank and file Repubs will write letters of support to the House and Senate for their guy, and Dems will do the same, resulting in deadlock. That’s where Kaine comes in.

    But that’s all just speculation.

  6. NewHburger says:

    Before you question whether it is appropriate for the General Assembly to disregard the local bar’s endorsement, I think it is entirely reasonable to question whether the local bar should have any involvement in the process at all.

    Seems to me having lawyers select those who will be passing judgment on their motions is a little too cozy. I think there’s more accountability having the General Assembly (Republican or Democratic) choose judges rather than lawyers who are just looking to have a hand in the cookie jar.

  7. Bubby says:

    Oh, I have no expectations for bi-partisanship from our Republican party. They have no more respect for the democratic process than they have for the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Bar, or the citizens of Virginia. It’s all about holding power in the hands of a select few for the benefit of a select few – a fundamentally un-American intent.

    In the Viginia Senate the “Shenandoah Valley Caucus” already sits in the minority, by late 2009 their Delegate members will join them in that minority. At that point the citizens of Rockingham County will find themselves represented by a weakling “Caucus”. Better that we have Governor Kaine pick our judge now – we’ll need all of the influence we can find.

  8. finnegan says:

    That’s a fair criticism, NewHburger.

    However, one could also make the argument that outside of Mark Obenshain (who is a local attorney) and possibly Todd Gilbert (who is a prosecutor up in Warren), the politicians aren’t qualified to make that decision either. How many of these Valley politicians are as familiar with the records of service and ethical practices of Helsley and Wilson as the local bar?

    Is Jill Holzman-Vogel, who lives more than an hour north of here, a good judge of Helsely or Wilson? How about Hanger or Landes, who live south of here?

  9. cook says:

    It may surprise you, NewHburger, to learn that many lawyers are thoughtful and decent folks who love their families and want this community to be a great place to live and work. Disclaimer: I am a local lawyer. We have a front row seat to see what is happening in our courts (as do the police, the clerks, and other courthouse regulars). I don’t think you should so quickly discount the local bar’s voice in this process.

  10. NewHburger says:

    I’m not trying to impungn the integrity of the bar. In fact, I believe that lawyers and all the “courthouse regulars” are vital to our system of government. I’m sorry if it sounded like I was jumping on the anti-lawyer bandwagon. Believe me I’m not.

    I just question the process. To me it’s akin to having a teacher serve on a board of education or legislators deciding on redistricting. They all have a vested interest in the outcome that is an inherent conflict of interest.

    Seems to me there should be a happy medium between the bar and the legislative solutions – something that is more accountable to the citizens.

  11. raplayer says:

    “It was his time this time”?! I wish the caucus had given the paper a better reason for selecting Mr. Wilson. Our representatives should make a recommendation based upon what they believe to be best for the citizens who will live in this judge’s bailiwick. If the caucus considered the citizens’ best interests, there’s no hint of it in the News Record article.

  12. Lowell Fulk says:

    I would like to submit a line of thought into this discussion:
    Mr/Ms NewHburger,
    Which attorneys would gain from endorsing Mr. Helsley? Which attorneys would lose?
    In 100% of the cases tried before Mr. Helsley, if he were to be appointed as Judge of Circuit Court, there would be attorneys on both sides of a given case. I disagree with Mr. Finnegan in that your argument is a fair criticism, but I do think it is a fair question which brings forth a reasoned answer. Consider that of some seven attorneys who sought the Harrisonburg/Rockingham BAR endorsement, and given that the BAR could have voted to endorse ALL seven, the fact that the collective judgment was to support only Mr. Helsley is very telling indeed… Every area attorney desires the same thing: A judge who will listen, a judge who understands the law, a judge who understands people, a judge who uses reason, and a judge who exhibits sound judgment… Attorneys understand that in every case heard, there will be exactly 50% who win, and 50% who do not. So where NewHburger, is the bias you of which you hint? I will ask again, which attorneys would gain by endorsing Mr. Helsley? My answer would be, all of them… Because they know they would be fairly heard. This is why in my mind, the BAR endorsement of some 175 local attorneys should carry weight beyond that of state legislators who for the most part have no idea who is or is not qualified, and seem more concerned with exhibiting power than they are with furthering the cause of justice for area citizens.
    I agree with Mr. Cook, not always but often. And I always respect his opinion. Our area attorneys are good people who do care about the community in which they want their children to have a promising future.

  13. NewHburger wrote:

    I’m not trying to impugn the integrity of the bar.

    Why the hell not?

    Lawyers, with exceptions like “cook,” Gene Hart, Bill Hensley, Bruce Albertson, and a few others locally are generally parasites (vultures in the truest sense of the word, if you must) — especially those which inhabit the General Assembly and Congress.

    Certainly in this session, Obenshain & Gilbert are not above voting for legislation they know to be illegal just to protect certain screwed-up mechanisms of the state.

    These guys are still introducing thousands of pieces of legislation annually — plus hundreds of “resolutions” praising dead cronies, high school basketball teams, and news organizations — but they can’t get a budget done on time, apparently are too stupid to pass legislation that was, easily, declared unconstitutional by the Virginia Supreme Court, and don’t even try to conceal the fact that many vote regularly for the direct benefit of campaign contributors (i.e. Payday Voting).

    Hell, even their own regulatory authority willingly overlooks 80 years of law in order to protect itself and the state from civil actions.

    Finally, as a career field, I doubt layers fare even as well as Congress.

  14. Lowell Fulk says:

    Dave,
    Dear Friend Dave,
    You seem to be confusing legislators and attorneys.
    While the majority of legislators may well be attorneys, the majority of attorneys are not legislators…
    If we are to sustain a successful democracy, we must stop the practice of electing our own particular version of Santa Claus, and begin electing people to govern… Even though they might propose a painful solution to a problem which we face…

  15. Reagandem says:

    Thanks Dave! I think . . .

    Gene Hart

  16. NewHburger says:

    It’s not bias I’m worried about. It’s accountability in the selection process. If legislators are supposed to blindly accept the bar’s recommendation then you’ve removed the people from the process and by extension eliminated a critical check in our system of checks and balances.

  17. Lowell, I’m speaking primarily of legislators who ARE attorneys and who should know better…not legislators, like Delegate Lohr, who follow the attorneys and then claim “stupidity” because they aren’t lawyers.

    If you (Delegate Lohr) aren’t capable of using the interpretive skills to derive the meaning of the plain wording of legislation you’re about to vote on — get the hell out of the General Assembly.

  18. Lowell Fulk says:

    Thank you Dave…

  19. finnegan says:

    Anyone see Mellott’s story in the DNR today?

    As predicted, the fight begins. Sounds to me like Senate Dems are starting to dig trenches over the Wilson/Helsley judgeship.

  20. republitarian says:

    Let’s add several other attorneys to that list. St. Ours, Keffer, J. Hart…

    As for Gene, I don’t know Dave. After his outburst in our presence the other week I’m starting to wonder…..

  21. Lowell Fulk says:

    Oh my goodness! An outburst in your presence? Were your feelings hurt?! Why has no one heard of this outrage?

  22. Bubby says:

    Typically, members of the judicial district’s legislative caucus have been given the choice of selecting a nominee, Hanger said.

    Yeah Emmett, however elections have consequences, and in 2006 Virginians decided to replace your Republican majority after years of extremist nonsense, and do-nothing legislation.

    And by-the-way, blowing off the Bar Association recommendation in a partisan manner isn’t going to help you or Mr. Obenshain deliver for the local farm industry when the Democratic-controlled Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee gets to work. You can expect Chairwoman Ticer and Senator Deeds to give you further schooling on the consequences of partisan extremism.

  23. Christa says:

    Myron, you wonder about any of us who disagrees strongly with your behavior. Well, at least it’s you this week Gene, and not me!

  24. finnegan says:

    I could be wrong, but I’m fairly certain Myron is joking.

  25. Christa says:

    No, he is not Finnegan.

  26. Lowell Fulk says:

    Oh what a relief! You know how I justh detesth sthrong wordths.

  27. republitarian says:

    Yeah, actually I was….

    No one is going to always agree with what you do, every time.

    There was no “outburst”….Gene was just giving his unsoliticited opinion….I kinda blew it off…

  28. Reagandem says:

    Myron, thanks for the clarification. I thought I had missed an “outburst” and could only hope it was a good one! I am glad we can all continue to clash over ideas and issues while remaining civil and friends after the heat passes. Those that we agree with today might not be with us tomorrow, but we should all keep working to find common ground where possible without compromising core principles. The world is more interesting when you can maintain friends of all persuasions! For a great example, please see the DNR article today on the judgeship issue and the courageous example of my good friend but too-often-in-the-future political opposite John Elledge. I just hope his political friends remain true to that principled, good man.

  29. republitarian says:

    You know, I was going to mention that.

    I have to give John some “props” on sticking up for his boy.

    To be honest, I don’t know jack about Bill or TJ, except Bill wanted me to appraise his John Deere 4430 the other day.

    You’re also right about maintaining friendships.

    I’ve had someone who was like a dad to me start taking cheap shots at me on blogs. I’ve tried to call him and settle and differences or misunderstandings that may have occurred but he obviously is more interested in making some political hay…..I guess.

  30. Christa says:

    Sometimes, Myron, you have to take responsibility for the agendas that you place on your blog. You may not always be the “bad guy” but you sure make it easy for some of us to be upset with you for allowing it.
    Hard choice between Bill and TJ. Both great attorneys and both would make good judges. Does anyone know when a decision will be made?

  31. republitarian says:

    Christa, I afford you and everyone else the ability to post your agenda.

  32. JGFitzgerald says:

    How did this thread become another Myron psycho-drama?

  33. finnegan says:

    Remember what I said about the 10 – 20 comment rule? In this case, it derailed after about 19 (give-or-take).

    Not bad.

  34. republitarian says:

    I started on topic and remained on topic.

    I think it’s clear that certain people are taking it upon themselves to make this about me….rather than the topic.

    Joe, I think you have some sort of stalker man crush thing going on when it comes to me. If you want my attention just ask. You act like a stray dog trying to get me to pat you on the end.

    Here goes.

    Joe, I think you are great. I think you should still work at the DNR as an editor because you are the best. You were also the best mayor and city council person the ‘Burg ever had and anyone who says different doesn’t know jack beans.

    Your wife is very lucky to have you and this community is fortunate to have you in it.

    Now run along little doggy…..

  35. JGFitzgerald says:

    Oh. That’s how.

  36. Bubby says:

    A similar situation is playing out in the 23rd Judicial District…except in this case the shoe is on the other foot. Salem City councilman Chris Clemens (a Republican) has received the the endorsement of the Salem-Roanoke Bar Association, and the Roanoke Bar Association.

    Republican Majority Leader (and House Courts of Justice Committee member) Morgan Griffith tells us that he supports Clemens because of the Bar endorsements. Del. William Fralin, R-Roanoke, says, “bar association endorsements would carry weight as he sizes up the candidates”.

    I’ll be watching to see if these Republican delegates apply a consistent standard when voting for Bill Helsley.

  37. finnegan says:

    Nice catch, Bubby. I’ll be interested to hear the outcome of that.

  38. Lowell Fulk says:

    As a followup to the information you’ve provided Bubby, I’ve just received word that the House Republicans have promised to kill any legislation submitted by Senator Deeds if he doesn’t drop his support of Bill Helsley. No matter what the legislation deals with or how it would benefit the citizens of Virginia…

  39. Reagandem says:

    I heard that earlier today too, Lowell. I trust the Senate Dems will remain united in support of an extraordinarily qualified judicial candidate. If they fail to do so, then they will have allowed the House Republican majority to control the Senate Democratic majority. If the Repubs hold up otherwise necessary legislation just because Sen. Deeds’ name is on it, then next year the target could be Sen. Edwards, Sen. Marsh, Sen. Puller, etc. Best to draw the line now and fight all the harder in 2009.

  40. Lowell Fulk says:

    Reagandem,
    We shall see…
    Then we are tasked with deciding what to do, and who to support…

  41. Bubby says:

    It sure would be good to hear from House Republicans on their legislative plan to close the $1 billion gap in the State budget, or how they propose to fund their transportation law now that the Virginia Supreme Court has declared it’s revenue generating provisions un-Constitutional…before they go to bickering over our Bar-endorsed Circuit Court Judge.

  42. finnegan says:

    And now this from Mellott in the DNR, still neglecting to mention Wilson’s political connections to the Republican Party, while continuing to tout Helsley’s political affiliation.

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