[It should be noted that the following Arlington Journal article entitled "Judge Pick Rouses Critics" is copyrighted. The contents may not be reproduced without permission of the publisher, The Arlington Journal, 2720 Prosperity Avenue, Fairfax, Virginia 22034-1000. The Civic Association received permission to publish this article in the Ballston-Virginia Square Civic Association Newsletter.]
The nomination of an Arlington-based lawyer as a replacement for a retiring General District Court judge has once again sparked criticism of Virginia's judicial selection process.
Dorothy Clarke, an Arlington attorney since 1981, has been selected by Arlington's delegation to the General Assembly to replace Judge Eleanor S. Dobson, who is retiring at the end of this month after 15 years on the bench.
The professional relationship between Clarke and State Del. James Almand, D-Arlington, and Clarke's qualifications to sit on the bench have been questioned by local watchdog groups.
The 51-year-old Clarke served on the Arlington County School Board from 1983 to 1992 and has been involved in many political campaigns.
Clarke and Almand are both attorneys in the same office building and share the same receptionist, telephone number and fax machine number.
Also raised as concerns are how Clarke's gender and her long record of service to the local Democratic Party, to which Almand and all other state legislators belong, have contributed to her nomination.
Almand is chairman of the legislature's Courts of Justice Committee, which selects judges for the circuit, general district and juvenile courts.
Both Clarke and Almand denied their professional relationship had any bearing on Clarke's selection.
"That had absolutely nothing to do with it," Almand said. "Nothing at all."
Clarke agreed, adding it probably put more pressure on Almand.
"Actually if anything, it probably made him more reluctant," she said. "It probably made him try to be as careful as he possibly could be. And I respected that. I really kept my distance."
Arlington's six-member state delegation met Monday and came to a group decision that she would be its nominee to the General Assembly.
The Arlington delegation will forward Clarke's name to the House Courts of Justice Committee, which will decide on its list of replacement judges. The General Assembly then votes on those names.
Because the Courts of Justice Committee has not met yet to approve judge selections, Almand could still remove himself from that vote.
Of the five candidates submitted to the legislative delegation for consideration by a committee of the Arlington Bar Association, Clarke received the second-lowest score.
In fact, of the three ratings used to evaluate candidates-highly qualified, qualified and not qualified-all seven votes rated Clarke "qualified." The only other female candidate among the five received the lowest score.
Kevin Appel, president-elect of the Arlington Bar Association, said lawyers will rate a candidate differently than will legislators.
According to Almand, legislators don't actually "rate" candidates, they simply interview them and make their best selection.
"Because lawyers have to practice in front of the judges," he said, "they want to practice with someone they're friendly with."
Clarke also said because she and Dobson are women, the gender issue might have influenced the delegation's decision.
"I certainly think that was an important part of my candidacy," she said. "Of the nine judges, three are women, I thought it was important that we not move backward."
Every aspect of the selection process sound questionable, said Amy Jones-Baskaran, president of Volunteers for an Independent Arlington, a political watchdog group.
"The current plan, and this is an example of it, is riddled with political favoritism," she said. "It is not in the best interest of judicial independence."
Only two other states, Rhode Island and South Carolina, use legislative appointment of judges. Other states either have a general election or a nonpartisan committee that selects judges, which are approved by the state Senate.
A past session of the state Senate passed a revision of Virginia's judicial selection process, but it never got to a full vote in the House of Delegates.
Tom Brooke, spokesman for the Arlington County Republican Committee, said the entire process is flawed.
"There are much better ways of doing things, he said. "This is part of the political process and only political animals are selected to be judges."
The annual salary of general district court judges is $93,600.
The most qualified candidate to fill Dobson's seat, according to both the seven-member committee and Arlington's entire bar, is Richard J. McCue, who has been a Falls Church attorney since 1979. The Arlington Bar Association includes attorneys who practice law in the City of Falls Church.
McCue, who was president of the bar association in 1992-93, would not say whether he would run for a judgeship again, but said he did run two years ago when two seats were open in the General District Court. They were eventually filled by Karen A. Henenberg and Thomas Kelley Jr.
In 1991, when Clarke ran for a Juvenile and Domestic Relations judgeship, eventually filled by Joanne F. Alper, two-thirds of the attorneys listed Clarke as "not qualified," or said her qualifications were not known.