The 2016 Session of the General Assembly has now been through its first full week. Days full of work make the time pass quickly. A 60-day session suffers under the misnomer of the “long” session and the odd numbered year 46-day sessions are the “short” sessions. We handle about the same amount of work in each session, with the exception of the consideration of the two year budget during the 60-day session. The Virginia Constitution does not provide for holiday or weekend breaks. So even when the General Assembly does not hold floor sessions, for example on weekends, the time period rolls on.
Likewise, the Session continues during federal holidays, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. This past Monday, we celebrated that holiday and welcomed many people who had the day off to the General Assembly. Standing committees met and both houses held a floor session. There were an inordinate number of people trying to navigate the hallways, stairwells and elevators of the General Assembly Building to talk to their legislators. It was a busy day.
This year, as in other years, groups from all over the 25th District and throughout Virginia trekked to Richmond to share ideas with their elected representatives. This past week, during a radio interview I was asked whether anyone coordinated the rallies that occur during the legislative session. Historically, the pro-gun control and the pro-Second Amendment groups come to Richmond on Martin Luther King Day. Another day, the pro-choice and anti-choice people attend; another day the pro-Medicaid expansion and anti-Medicaid expansion attend. I’m not sure that anyone puts these groups together, but I am sure it is no coincidence that both sides of the issue are represented in Richmond at the same time.
It is still early in the session. The primary focus continues to be the budget. This week the Senate Finance Committee held important hearings regarding revenue projections and other fiscal matters. Of particular concern was the discussion on the relative weak growth of Virginia’s economy. As stated before in this space, we face a number of very serious challenges, many of which are brought on by sequestration at the federal level. We all know that the economy will change and that government contracting and direct military spending, which has driven economic growth in Virginia since the end of World War II, will not continue unabated. We have to diversify, and without question there will be growing pains in our economy and in Virginia’s government during that process.
Of note as well this session is the continued discussion revolving around Justice Roush of the Virginia Supreme Court. Many will recall that she was a Fairfax trial judge whom Governor McAuliffe appointed on an interim basis to the Virginia Supreme Court. She was appointed upon the recommendation of Delegate Dave Albo, the Republican Chair of the House Courts of Justice Committee. Unfortunately, her appointment ruffled the feathers of some of the Republican hierarchy. They have objected and are trying to remove her from the bench. Late last week, the Republican leadership was surprised to find that one of their freshman senators, Glen Sturtevant, a Senator from Richmond, was supporting Justice Roush. The discovery delayed for the time being their efforts to unseat her. This story will have to be continued because there does not appear to be any compromise.
Ultimately, part of the problem with putting people on the bench is that partisan politics becomes an issue. Thomas Jefferson, while the Minister to France, wrote an important letter to James Madison. At the time, Madison was developing the Constitution of the United States and had sent a draft to Jefferson. One of the important things in the draft, Jefferson concluded, was the absolute independence of the judiciary. He applauded the lifetime terms which he felt would ensure independence. We don’t have lifetime terms for state court judges in Virginia. Frankly, there needs to be some mechanism to assure the public that those people appointed to the bench are doing their jobs. However, we have to be vigilant that members of the bench are independent; judges should not consider that their position is owed to any segment of the political class. Without that, we cannot ensure there is equal justice for all in our court system.
I have once again sponsored a bill to create a merit based selection process for judges. The bill has not yet been heard.
This is being written as a major storm bears down on Virginia leading the Governor to declare a State of Emergency. I urge all Virginians to be careful, to not travel unless they have to, to stay warm and hydrated, to be mindful of their neighbors, and to care for their pets and animals. Even though the snow may come, I will need to make sure the ice gets broken and the chicken and equine are cared for. I urge caution.
It continues to be my high honor to serve you in the Virginia General Assembly. If I may be of service, do not hesitate to contact me. I can be reached at
District25@senate.virginia.gov or (804) 698-7525. I look forward to hearing from you.