The 10th of November saw a reconvening of the Virginia General Assembly during what seems to be a never ending session. Not since 2001 has the General Assembly been in session this long. While these extended sessions do not often occur, I fear the Jeffersonian ideal of a part-time citizen legislature is in jeopardy.
A part-time citizen legislature requires that people gather for short periods of time every year to consider changes to the law. Those people have to earn their principal living outside of government service and have to live among the people they represent. The idea is that citizen legislators remain closer to the people, and thus their work is more likely to reflect the needs of the community they represent.
Legislators are drawn to Richmond for a few months every winter, away from their families and jobs, to engage in lawmaking. It is always a challenge to find the right balance between all of one’s responsibilities. The system works because the Constitution of Virginia defines the legislative session as being no longer than 60 days in even-numbered years and 30 days in odd-numbered years unless there is an extension agreed to by a super majority or unless the Governor or a super majority of the legislature calls a special session.
Special sessions are called periodically to deal with very specific issues. In 1994, parole was abolished. In 1998, we adopted the plan to repeal the car tax. In 2004, we took up taxes. This year the special session was called because we failed to adopt a budget during our regular session, in large part because of disagreement over Medicaid expansion. In addition, certain judicial vacancies needed to be filled. Historically, special sessions are not protracted.
After gaining the majority in 1999 for the first time since Reconstruction, the Republican majority cut the Democratic minority to smithereens in the redistricting process in 2001. Litigation ensued and the Republicans kept the General Assembly in special session all year in order to avoid subpoena or deposition in the litigation.
This year, former Senator Phil Puckett’s abrupt resignation from the Senate in June gave the Republicans absolute control of both houses of the General Assembly and hastened the death of Medicaid expansion. It also helped resolve the judicial vacancy issue because appointments to the bench are a prerogative of the majority party. Since the Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate, appointments would not be bogged down by partisan disputes and should have made for a quick judicial selection process. But it has not been that easy.
A number of judicial vacancies were filled this past summer and a few more this past week. However, the majority party has not found consensus on the appellate court vacancies. There will be a vacancy on the Virginia Supreme Court at the end of the year, and there will be at least two vacancies on the Court of Appeals.
The General Assembly could just call it quits, end the Special Session and reach agreement when we convene in 2015. Legislators would have some normalcy for the remainder of the year and not have to worry about being called to Richmond again before January 14th. However that would also give the Governor certain prerogatives with respect to filling judicial vacancies. Continuing the Special Session not only serves to allow the majority party to resolve its disagreements about filling the vacancies, it serves as a check on gubernatorial power. In that respect, keeping the legislature in a Special Session this year – all year – is unprecedented and undermines the natural checks and balances built into our system of government by the Constitution.
Perhaps it is time for us to reconsider the notion of filling judicial vacancies on the basis of merit, a suggestion that has been made over the years by both Democrats and Republicans. I remember such ideas coming from Andy Guest, a Republican delegate from Warren County, and Whitt Clement, a Democratic delegate from Danville. I have sponsored legislation in the past as well because the administration of justice is one of the most important functions of government, and too important to be left to the partisan politics of the day.
It continues to be my honor to serve you in the Senate of Virginia. If you have questions or concerns, do not hesitate to contact my legislative office: P.O. Box 5462, Charlottesville, Virginia 22905, (434) 296-5491, or via email at [email protected] . The General Assembly will convene for the 2015 Session on January 14. Legislation is already being introduced and can be tracked here. If you have ideas or concerns that you think need to be addressed during this session, please let me know as soon as possible.