RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A rancorous partisan battle over Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s pick for the state Supreme Court quickly escalated Monday and could be headed to court.
The fight also effectively killed any chances that lawmakers will be able to redraw the state’s congressional map in time to meet a deadline imposed by a panel of federal judges.
Senate Democrats, with the help of a retiring moderate GOP state senator, abruptly adjourned Monday after rejecting a GOP-favored pick for the state Supreme Court.
Democrats believe their sudden adjournment gives the Democratic governor the ability to reappoint Justice Jane Marum Roush next month, after her initial brief appointment expires.
Republicans disagree and said Democrats have misinterpreted the state’s Constitution, which only allows governors to make judicial appointments when the General Assembly is adjourned. The GOP-dominated House is currently in recess and has not adjourned.
Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, a Democrat from Fairfax County, predicted it’ll be up to the courts to ultimately decide.
McAuliffe “will reappoint her and you’ll just have to wait and see how everything plays out in the courts, okay? It’s the American way,” Saslaw said.
Republicans did not immediately indicate whether they plan to sue, but McAuliffe told reporters he’s confident the law is on his side. He also mocked Republicans after they failed to get their own pick passed the Senate.
“The Republicans looked small and ineffective,” McAuliffe said.
Lawmakers had ostensibly returned to Richmond for the start of a special session to redraw the state’s congressional map.
In June, a federal court concluded for a second time that legislators in 2012 illegally packed black voters into the 3rd District in order to make adjacent districts safer for Republican incumbents. The panel gave lawmakers until Sept. 1 to draw a new map.
Republicans had unsuccessfully pushed for an extended deadline, saying they want to wait and see if the U.S. Supreme Court will overrule the panel.
On Monday, Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Sen. A. Donald McEachin said it was clear the General Assembly lacked the political will to redraw congressional boundaries and the Senate should just adjourn. The move sets up the possibility that federal judges could impose a congressional map of their own design, as they’ve done in in other states.
Republicans blasted the Democrats’ maneuver as “blatantly hypocritical and deeply irresponsible.”
“Democrats have single-handedly shutdown any possibility of a legislative remedy on redistricting and have no one to blame but themselves,” GOP leaders said in a statement.
The Senate voted 20-20 to adjourn, with Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam casting the tiebreaking vote. Democrats needed the help of moderate GOP state Sen. John Watkins to get to 20 votes.
Senate Democrats also relied on Watkins to reject the GOP-favored pick for the state Supreme Court on a 20-20 vote.
Republicans had planned to elect Rossie D. Alston Jr., currently a judge on the Virginia Court of Appeals, instead of Roush.
McAuliffe and Republicans have been sniping at each other for weeks over his appointment of Roush in late July. GOP leaders were miffed that McAuliffe’s office did not check with them before appointing her, which they said was a breach in normal protocol.
McAuliffe was authorized to appoint a Supreme Court justice because the General Assembly was not in session when Justice LeRoy F. Millette Jr. announced his retirement. But the General Assembly has final say in judicial selections and Republicans say McAuliffe created needless drama by not running his pick by GOP leaders ahead of time.
“All they had to do was put a phone call out — before the fact, not after the fact,” said Republican SenateMajority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr.
McAuliffe said such arguments were petty.
“If we went through today because of a missed phone call? I’m sorry … but this isn’t Peyton Place. We are running a government here,” McAuliffe said, referring to 60’s soap opera.
Republicans and Democrats argued in both chambers over the motivations in both parties. Democrats accused Republicans of trying to deny Roush a seat because she is a woman. Republicans said Democrats, by voting against Alston, were denying a spot on the bench for a well-qualified African-American.
Gov. McAuliffe’s full statement Monday reads as follows:
I am shocked and saddened that Republican leaders denied a sitting Supreme Court Justice a hearing, even as she sat at her desk, across the street from today’s Joint Courts of Justice meeting, continuing to serve the citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia. This is not the Virginia way to treat anyone, let alone an outstanding female jurist. Republicans have yet to raise a single concern about Justice Roush’s legal skills or her integrity. Indeed, they have repeatedly acknowledged that her qualifications are unmatched.
Republican leaders ultimately were incapable of electing anyone, leaving the state’s highest court in a state of uncertainty. It is disgraceful that Republicans have turned a serious decision affecting Virginia’s entire judicial system into an embarrassing partisan circus. I call on lawmakers to return to Virginia’s time-honored traditions for electing judges. I ask that they walk across the street and invite Justice Roush to a new hearing, one that is open and fair, and gives this highly qualified judge the respect she is due.
Associated Press Writer Larry O’Dell contributed to this report.
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