Virginia Statehouse News
The General Assembly on Friday elected two new members to the state’s highest court ending five months of political negotiations over how to make the appointments. The election of two women brings the number of female judges on the court to its highest level in history.
Cleo Powell and Elizabeth McClanahan will join Chief Justice Cynthia Kinser. They will serve 12-year terms beginning Aug. 1 and will fill vacancies created in February when former Chief Justice Leroy Hassell Sr. died and Justice Lawrence Koontz Jr. retired. The state’s highest court has seven judges.
State Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, said the Democrats supported Powell because of her experience on the Court of Appeals, but they also wanted to ensure the court reflects the diversity of the state.
“Reflecting the population geographically, racially — I think gender — all of those type of things, I think it is good to have a court that really does represent all Virginians,” Barker said.
The divided Legislature finally struck a deal this week giving Republicans three of the four judicial nominations and allowing Democrats one pick. If the Legislature had adjourned without filling the vacancies, the governor would have been allowed to choose the new Supreme Court judges.
Barker said because Republicans control two-thirds of state government — both the House and the governor’s mansion — they negotiated more nominations.
Cline said the House had offered a 3-1 compromise previously but only after the governor sent his letter last week, urging the Legislature to fill the Supreme Court seats, did the Democrats choose to accept it.
Despite the political wrangling it took to elect McClanahan and Powell, both are traditional selections for Virginia courts, said Carl Tobias, a constitutional law professor at the University of Richmond School of Law.
But lawmakers commonly choose from the Court of Appeals to fill state Supreme Court vacancies. Not only do the new judges meet that qualification, but they also are well respected, Tobias said.
She is a labor law expert.
McClanahan earned her law degree from University of Dayton and her undergraduate degree from the College of William and Mary. Prior to serving on the appeals court, she was the chief deputy under former Attorney General Jerry Kilgore.
She is an expert in natural resources law focusing on natural gas, coal and oil issues.
“The expertise and depth for all of them was most impressive to me,” said Delegate Beverly Sherwood, R-Winchester.