General Assembly’s judicial interviews devolve into ‘s***show’

The Virginia State Capitol. (Ned Oliver / Virginia Mercury)

The General Assembly broke its determined and often clandestine approach to making judicial appointments this week when a candidate interviewing turned into a spectacle that prompted a disgruntled senator to make a series of statements.

House and Senate lawmakers interviewed Katie Uston, the former Virginia Bar Association assistant, for a judge’s office in Alexandria.

The process is usually characterized by muffled back and forth and softball questions like “Why do you want to be a judge?” – with the actual work of selecting candidates privately drawn up under the legislators representing each judicial district.

In Uston’s case, however, Senator Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, made it clear Tuesday that she was unqualified for the position and raised a long series of questions examining her expertise in civil and criminal litigation. Did she know that the law had changed a lot in the ten years since she last practiced criminal law? (Yes.) Had she ever served as a substitute judge? (No.) Had she ever made a motion to suppress the fourth amendment? (No, but as an attorney at the bar, she was familiar with investigating allegations of legal misconduct through her work.)

Senator Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, reads an obituary for the late Lt. Governor John Hager as he sits at his desk prior to the session in the Temporary Chamber of the Virginia Senate at the Virginia Science Museum in Richmond, VA, on Friday, August 28, 2020. (Pool photo by Bob Brown / Richmond Times-Dispatch )

Legislators eventually cut Morrissey off and turned to a public hearing where three people with longstanding complaints spoke about the judiciary and the Uston prosecutor and were interrogated at one point.

“She is familiar with all kinds of classified information that she can use against anyone standing as trial attorneys or attorneys, and people will never know,” said Rhetta Daniel.

The tenor of the hearing visibly disturbed the committee members who urged co-chair, Senator John Edwards, D-Roanoke, to contain the proceedings.

“This is absolutely the worst, John,” said Senator Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth. “That’s awful.”

A few minutes later, Senator Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, was caught by a hot microphone repeating out loud, “This is a bloody show.” (The comment was apparently cut from the Senate video archive of the meeting before being posted on Wednesday morning.)

Morrissey said Wednesday he agreed that the public comment deadline had gotten out of hand, but said his questions were perfectly reasonable and focused solely on their qualifications.

He also asked if Uston had her connection with one of the lawmakers who supported her appointment, Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, whose legal partner is Uston’s husband, has sufficiently disclosed.

When the subject emerged during the meeting, Simon said he planned to bring it up before Morrissey opened his investigation. He said there was no effort to keep the association secret, noting that Uston disclosed it in both her ethics statement and a questionnaire.

Persistent resentment, obscure protocol and a classic judges’ fight at the general assembly

Regarding her qualifications, he said her background with the prosecution was different from most others, but she was recommended by the bar associations who screened applicants on behalf of the local delegation.

Simon jotted down Morrissey’s own story with Uston’s former employer, Virginia State Bar, which revoked his legal license twice – most recently in 2018.

“I definitely understand Joe’s position,” said Simon. “I think you could make a clear argument similar to what he’s saying, but it seems strange that someone who has been expelled twice would register a candidate from another part of the state.

“It raises an eyebrow.”

Morrissey declined the suggestion to hold a grudge. “I’ve never met her in my life – had nothing to do with me,” he said. “The story is very simple: is it qualified? … I don’t apologize for trying to get the best person on the bank. “

However, there were plenty of excuses when the hearing ended on Tuesday.

“I’m sorry we had what we had to deal with,” Edwards said to Uston.

“That’s fine,” she replied.

McDougle, meanwhile, took to Twitter to apologize for “using inappropriate language to express my despair while thinking I was muted”.

But his regret, he said, only extended to his choice of words: “I stand by the feeling I expressed.”

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