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Opinion — Expanded Court of Appeals will serve Virginia well

The administration of justice is a key principle in a democracy.

The rule of law and the fair application of the law are the key standards of this principle. In Virginia, we have made significant progress in our effort to make justice more accessible to people. This year we made key reforms to the appellate process that will ensure a fair review of all cases.

Our appellate system is made up of the Supreme Court of Virginia and the intermediate Court of Appeals, which has only existed since 1985. The Court of Appeals hears appeals in criminal cases, domestic relations matters and workers compensation. To this day it has very limited jurisdiction. In fact, one convicted of a non-capital crime who receives a life sentence is not automatically entitled to an appeal. We are the only state in the union with this distinctive omission from our system of justice.

Creigh Deeds

The appellate system has so many flaws that a number of years ago, out of frustration, I introduced a bill to eliminate the Court of Appeals. My concern was with the way it was administered. The decisions of one panel that heard cases were not binding on another panel, so the body of law that was created was inconsistent. Further, I was concerned about the appointment process. It seemed that only one side, criminal prosecutors, got appointed as judges. Of course that bill went nowhere.

Last year, we began to look at reforming the Court of Appeals. After receiving recommendations from the Supreme Court, we passed a bill that substantially remakes the intermediate Court of Appeals. The legislation, carried by Senator John Edwards of Roanoke, gives the Court of Appeals jurisdiction over all matters and makes an appeal a matter of right. One of the other recommendations from the Supreme Court was to expand the membership to handle the increased workload, so we increased the number of judges on the Court of Appeals from 11 to 17. The court already had two vacancies, so a major part of the work of this special session was to fill those eight judgeships.

Virginia is one of only two states where judges are elected by the General Assembly. The election of judges has always been the prerogative of the majority party, but I am proud to say that we conducted one of the most open processes ever in Virginia.

Between 2020 and 2021, more than 80 candidates put their names forward for consideration. All of those candidates were vetted by various bar associations, something we required of anyone wishing to be considered. After that process was complete, we reviewed the candidates and came up with a list of eight to nominate to the court. Those eight candidates were interviewed by the appropriate committees in the House and the Senate and elected this past Tuesday, Aug. 10.

In the selection process, we wanted to make sure that the Court of Appeals represented the diversity of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Because the jurisdiction of the Court of Appeals was being expanded as well as its membership, we wanted to make sure that the new judges represented a diversity of practice. We also wanted to make sure that the judges represented the gender and racial makeup of the commonwealth. Finally, we sought to ensure geographic diversity on the bench.

The current nine members of the Court of Appeals are primarily former prosecutors or members of the staff of the Attorney General’s office. One is a former Attorney General. A couple were in private practice and did civil work. The nine current judges are from Tidewater, the Richmond area and one is from Prince William County. Three are women, and one is African American.

The eight new judges balance the court and make it look more like Virginia. Two are former public defenders. One primarily practices domestic relations law, another is an appellate lawyer, and one worked for Legal Aid. Four of the judges are women and four are African American. The new judges hail from Charlottesville, Roanoke, Henrico, Norfolk, Warren County, Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria. All are well qualified to serve. I believe that generations of Virginians will benefit from this expanded Court of Appeals.

Creigh Deeds is a Virginia State Senator in the 25th District where he has served since 2001. He may be contacted at district25@senate.virginia.gov.