NEWS- Qualified guy? Local bar skips Camblos in judge picks
The Charlottesville Albemarle Bar Association winnowed the field of nine candidates vying for a soon-to-be vacated circuit court seat and deemed Charlottesville General District Judge Bob Downer and former prosecutor Cheryl Higgins "highly qualified" for the judgeship.
However, Albemarle Commonwealth's Attorney Jim Camblos, a Republican who's been elected four times, may not be out of the race for the bench seat, which will be filled by the Republican-majority General Assembly.
"The selection of judges is the most partisan aspect of legislating outside redistricting," declares State Senator Creigh Deeds. "It's pretty rare for Republicans to include Democrats– and the Democrats were just as selfish when they were in power."
The local bar's judicial endorsements committee met January 3 and found Downer, 58, and Higgins, 45, highly qualified. The full bar membership convened January 5 and decided not to vote on a preference between the two, instead reporting to legislators its recommendations of both, according to committee chair Donald Morin.
"The bar is pleased we're able to go through this process and get back to legislators before the General Assembly started," says Morin.
How much weight the bar's recommendation will carry in Richmond is another matter.
""To my view, the local bar is the best place to get recommendations because they know the candidates," says Deeds. "Some folks who disregard the bar views say they're political."
"They are one of the groups who are going to give input," says Republican Delegate Rob Bell, who is also a practicing attorney in Charlottesville. "They're an important group because they appear before judges." But, says Bell, the bar recommendation is not the only factor he's considering.
Bell did not attend the bar's December 14 public forum at which the candidates were asked questions. "I did that on purpose," Bell explains. "I thought that would skew things, and people would be talking directly to me rather than the bar. So I let them do their thing."
Bell challenges local buzz that the successor to Albemarle Circuit Court Judge Paul Peatross, who retires January 31, will likely be a Republican– but points out that of the legislators who represent the 16th Judicial Circuit and who will vote on a recommendation to the General Assembly, nine are Republicans, three Democrats, and one independent.
Judicial restraint and holding people accountable for criminal acts are values legislators will be looking for, says Bell. "I don't think there's any political litmus test– but there used to be," he adds, referring to the days when Dems were in power.
Court watchers predict that the next circuit court judge will come from a prosecutorial background– which Camblos and Higgins, a former county prosecutor, have, as do candidates Jon Zug and Claude Worrell.
Other contenders for the seat are private practice attorneys Patricia Brady and Lee Livingston.
"At this point, I'm keeping an open mind," says Bell, himself a former prosecutor.
"Delegate Bell and I believe it's important this judge have some experience with criminal justice because 60 to 70 percent of the cases are criminal," says Delegate David Toscano– another lawyer. He and Bell say they're putting together a citizens advisory committee and hope to hold a public hearing.
While the bar recommendation is important, says Toscano, "It's also important to solicit the input of the public."
Toscano, a Democrat, also disputes conventional wisdom that the next Albemarle judge must be a Republican. "I don't think that's true," says Toscano. "We're trying to embrace a nonpartisan, open process. That said, if it comes down to several candidates, the Republicans do control the House [of Delegates], and it could come down to that."
And that's where Camblos' long-time Republican connections could come into play. "I know there is support for his candidacy," says Republican Delegate Ed Scott, whose Culpeper, Madison, Orange district takes in a piece of the 16th Judicial Circuit.
Camblos, 60, declined to comment on the bar's recommendations or possible legislative backers he might have.
In 2001, he launched an unsuccessful bid for the Charlottesville General District Court seat now held by Downer, and did not receive a "highly qualified" rating from the bar then either.
Then-Delegate Paul Harris supported a bipartisan citizens committee endorsement of Downer, and the House of Delegates voted 99-0 for Downer.
Deeds would like to see merit-based selection of judges. Says the Democrat, who's yet another lawyer, "It's bad policy and bad politics to put your friends on the bench."
The Republican-majority General Assembly voted in 2001 for-then Delegate Paul Harris' choice for judge: Bob Downer.
PHOTO BY WILL WALKER
As a former prosecutor, Cheryl Higgins has the law-and-order creds legislators are looking for.
PHOTO BY WILL WALKER
Will party loyalty pay off for Commonwealth's Attorney Jim Camblos in 2007?
PHOTO BY WILL WALKER