The General Assembly on Tuesday concluded a six-day special legislative session for the purposes of electing judges and appropriating federal COVID relief funds allocated to Virginia by the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Today, I’d like to give you an update on what has taken place in Richmond over the last week and a half.
First, a brief reminder on what a special session consists of is in order. Special sessions, in accordance with the Constitution of Virginia, may be called by either the Governor or two-thirds of both chambers of the General Assembly. The Governor will set forth his reasoning for the special session in the call, though it is the legislature that sets the actual parameters of what can and cannot be considered. The House limited this special session to the election of judges and spending federal ARPA funds.
Election of Judges
We often hear the phrase “court packing” tossed around when it comes to federal politics. The most famous instance was an effort by FDR during the Great Depression to expand the United States Supreme Court in order to gain a liberal majority on the bench to support his New Deal agenda. That plan was eventually scrapped, but a similar plan has arrived in Virginia over eighty years later.
Earlier this year, the Democrats passed legislation that adds six new seats to the Virginia Court of Appeals based on the argument that an increased court load requires additional judges due to new court procedures that give every criminal and civil case a right of appeal, something currently done in all other states. The argument isn’t necessarily incorrect and has wide support in the legal community. In addition to the six new seats, two vacancies needed to be filled. Allowing one party to select eight judges for one court gives that party an unfair advantage. I had proposed a staggered appointment system with new judges decided by a non-partisan, merit based committee to ensure fairness, but this proposal was opposed by the Democrat majority.
The method by which these eight judges were selected is also concerning. Finalists were decided behind closed doors without in put from both parties, and the final list of candidates was only made public 24 hours before voting occurred. Consistent with my “no” vote earlier this year on the court packing scheme and the manner in which these individuals were selected, I declined to support the new judges.
To be clear, filling vacant seats is very different from creating new judicial seats. When the legislature has created additional local judicial seats in years past, it has been limited to one at a time. And in those instances, the entirety of the local legislative delegation — Republicans and Democrats alike — have input in the process.
In addition to the election of judges to the Court of Appeals, the General Assembly also elected judges to fill existing vacancies in lower courts across the state. This includes three new judges for the 12th judicial circuit that serves Chesterfield and Colonial Heights.
American Rescue Plan Act
Virginia has been allocated approximately $4.3 billion by the American Rescue Plan Act passed earlier this year by Congress. These federal dollars have specific parameters on how they can be spent, with funds generally required by law to be spent on coronavirus related causes.
Prior to session, the Governor and Democratic leaders released a spending plan and announced that no amendments could be made during the normal committee process, going against decades of legislative precedent. The original plan had several significant concerns, including a serious lack of oversight on how the Governor could spend certain unappropriated funds.
Ultimately, the Senate accepted several amendments from the floor while House Democrats killed all amendments within two minutes. With the difference between the House and Senate bills, the measure went to a conference committee for the differences to be worked out. Republicans were included in the conference committee in accordance with regular legislative order.
Here are a few highlights from the bipartisan spending plan:
- $5,000 bonuses for State Police; $3,000 for sheriff deputies and correctional officers
- Language requiring the DMV return to pre-COVID walk-in hours within 60 days of the bill’s passage
- $250 million to public schools for necessary HVAC updates
- Replenishing the unemployment fund to prevent a tax increase on small businesses come January 1
- Rate increases at home caregivers for Virginians with disabilities
- $2.5 million for Project Ceasefire, a data proven gun violence prevention program that targets bad actors rather than firearm confiscation
- Significant funding for broadband infrastructure in rural Virginia
This bill certainly is not perfect, but I cannot allow perfect to be the enemy of good. Since the legislature convened last week, I have heard from countless individuals from our district asking that I support a plan that includes bonuses for law enforcement and increased rates for home caregivers. I voted yes on this bill because the good outweighs the bad, and the process — while initially flawed — did include input from both parties in agreement with longstanding legislative practice.
A new, biennial state budget will be considered in 2022.
The General Assembly is expected to reconvene later this year for the purpose of either approving or rejecting a map of new legislative districts drawn by the new Redistricting Committee. No date has been set for that session, but will likely take place at some point in November or early December.
I hope that you have found this update both informative and useful. If I can be of service to you or your family on a state related issue, please let me know.