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Sun Gazette: Court Officials, Legislators Look to Richmond to Fill Judicial Vacancies Print


Created Wednesday, December 14, 2011 7:53 AM

Arlington's corps of Circuit Court judges, which stood at four at the beginning of the year, will drop to two in early January and could fall to a single jurist by summer if the General Assembly takes no action.

Circuit Court Judge Joanne Alper announced Dec. 9 she planned to retire from the 17th Judicial Circuit next May, ending two decades on the bench.

Her decision to retire comes as her colleague on the Circuit Court, James Almand, steps down at the end this month, leaving just Alper and Chief Judge William Newman Jr. on the bench.

Another Circuit Court judge, Benjamin Kendrick, was forced off the bench earlier this year when he reached the state judiciary's mandatory retirement age of 70.

To save money, the General Assembly has declined to automatically replace judges when they leave the bench, leaving members of Arlington's legislative delegation hoping for the best – but not necessarily counting on it – as they work to convince their colleagues in Richmond that the court workload justifies replacements of the judges.

Del. Patrick Hope (D-47th) said he expects the General Assembly to authorize new judges to succeed Almand and Alper. But "the big question is going to be timing," Hope said.

In a best-case scenario, the legislature will authorize a new judge to take Almand's place early in the new year, and authorize a new judge for Alper's position with the start of the new fiscal year next July.

Members of the county's legislative delegation already have selected their choice to succeed Almand: Daniel Fiore, who has been an attorney in the local area since 1982.

In Virginia, Circuit Court judges are "elected" by the General Assembly and serve six-year terms. Usually, deference is given to candidates endorsed by their local legislative delegations.

The delegation's selection of Fiore came after reviewing a number of candidates and receiving input from the Arlington County Bar Association and other outlets.

"That's our choice," Hope said of Fiore. "My desire is to get him in the seat as soon as possible."

The final decision on whether Arlington will get the additional judges, and the timing of when they take the bench, likely will be determined in the appropriations committees of the state Senate and House of Delegates. A decision could be made sometime in January or February, but also might be pushed back until legislators reconvene in a veto session in April.

Clerk of the Circuit Court Paul Ferguson said he was waiting to see how the legislature decided to proceed.

"Arlington is authorized for three Circuit Court judge positions. However, there is always an issue of funding," Ferguson said. "We are going on the assumption that the vacancies created by the retirements of Judge Almand and Judge Alper will be filled."

Alper served as a judge on the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court from 1991-98, including service as chief judge her last three years, and was elected by the General Assembly to the Circuit Court in 1998.

In a statement, Alper said that the time was right to step down.

"We have an extraordinary courthouse community, and I have enjoyed every day of my career working with the Bar, the commonwealth's attorneys, the public defenders, the Clerk's office staff, probation officers and all the members of the law-enforcement community," the judge said. "I now look forward to having more time to spend with my family, and to explore new challenges."

While members of the county's legislative delegation have picked Fiore as their choice for the Almand seat, they plan to reopen the selection process to consider other applicants for Alper's post, Hope said.

The 17th Circuit also includes the city of Falls Church.

This past legislative session, members of the General Assembly considered, but took no action on, a proposal to consolidate court systems statewide. The proposal would have combined Arlington, Alexandria and Falls Church into a single circuit, an idea that was opposed locally.