Peninsula finally get a judge at the Newport News federal courthouse: True or False?
could the Peninsula finally get its own federal district judge after almost 200 years of not having one?
tes, It could possibly occur.
Virginia’s two U.S. senators, Tim Kaine and Mark R. Warner, who play a key role in the judicial selection process, are voicing support for having a Peninsula native fill a recent federal district court opening in Hampton Roads, rather than the normal practice of picking someone from South Hampton Roads
“While it is not an absolute, rock solid certainty, Mark and I … have a strong preference for somebody who lives on the Peninsula,” Kaine said at Dec. 7 meeting of the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association in Richmond. “That’s not a litmus test, it’s not a requirement, but as we are looking at the nominees for that spot, we would like to find somebody who is on the Peninsula side.”
Kaine’s spokeswoman, Katie Stuntz, provided the transcript of Kaine’s comments after we learned of the meeting and asked her to confirm his comments.
If a Peninsula candidate gets the judgeship, it would be the first time it’s happened in more than 200 years: The last federal district judge from the Peninsula was Williamsburg attorney St. George Tucker, who served from 1813 to 1825 and worked on Duke of Gloucester Street.
A new Peninsula judge could also be based out of the federal courthouse in Newport News. That could mean that the courthouse, which has operated without a resident judge since it opened 12 years ago, could finally get a sharp uptick in usage.
Following Kaine’s and Warner’s recommendations, President Donald Trump is expected to nominate a candidate for the federal judgeship sometime next year. Trump’s nominee, who could be someone altogether different from the senators’ picks, is subject to Senate confirmation.
Newport News has in years past had its own federal magistrate judges, lower on the judicial pecking order than federal district judges. But since the U.S. District Court opened on West Avenue in 2007, the courthouse hasn’t had any “resident judges” at all.
The investigation in 2010 found that the overwhelming majority of federal court hearings arising from the Peninsula were being heard in Norfolk, where all of the judges are based.
That means that prosecutors, lawyers, witnesses and family members often have to trek to South Hampton Roads for hearings. It also means that the Newport News courthouse sits empty much of the time, even as it costs taxpayers more than $165,000 a month to lease.
Things improved somewhat after that, with the magistrates and some district judges coming to Newport News more often, but the increase has been marginal, with lots of Peninsula federal cases still heard primarily in Norfolk.
Another perhaps crucial consideration now is that a leading candidate for the current judicial opening, U.S. Magistrate Judge Douglas E. Miller, is from the Peninsula. Miller grew up in Hampton and still lives there, and was a partner at a Newport News law firm before he landed the magistrate job in 2010.
Miller didn’t want to speculate on the chances of Newport News getting its own resident judge, saying that it’s a “complicated process involving many variables.”
But he would clearly be willing to work there full time. “I will say that I have lived on the Peninsula most of my life and have no plans to move,” Miller wrote in an email. “If I were selected, and the opportunity fit within the court’s overall workload, I would welcome the chance to sit in Newport News.”
Miller, who currently sits mostly in Norfolk, said he tries to sit in Newport News as “as often as possible, consistent with my current work,” and will continue doing so no matter what happens going forward.
The recent federal district judgeship came open when U.S. District Judge Rebecca Beach Smith announced earlier this year that she’s moving to senior status. Smith, who sits in Norfolk, was Virginia’s first female federal district judge and served for more than 30 years.
Seventeen candidates were vetted by a nine-member committee of the Virginia State Bar, a state agency and arm of the judicial system. The group then sent its ratings to Kaine and Warner, five of the 17 deemed “highly qualified” and another 11 rated “qualified.”
The candidates deemed highly qualified were: Miller and fellow U.S. Magistrate Judge Lawrence R. Leonard; Norfolk Circuit Court Judges Mary Jane Hall and David W. Lannetti; and Norfolk attorney Gary A. Bryant.
Six candidates were rated qualified: U.S. Magistrate Judge Roderick C. Young of Richmond; Stafford Circuit Court Judge Victoria A.B. Willis; Virginia Beach attorney Mary T. Morgan; assistant U.S. attorneys Carina A. Cueller Amrod and Jay V. Prabhu of Alexandria; and Coke M. Stewart, a senior policy adviser with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
The other six candidates, including three from the Peninsula, didn’t advance. That leaves Miller as the only Peninsula candidate still standing after the Virginia State Bar’s vetting.
U.S. Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, D-Newport News, spoke in August that he was disappointed in the courthouse usage and was actively pressing the senators pick a Peninsula candidate. Donald Patten, the lead partner at Miller’s old law firm, Patten, Wornom Hatten & Diamonstein, said many in the local legal community were advocating for the same thing.
A Kaine spokeswoman said that both senators “understand that there are valid concerns about the lack of a federal judge in Newport News.”
Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, said Trump doesn’t have to go with the senators’ recommendations.
Just last week, he said, Trump nominated U.S. Attorney Tom Cullen for a district judgeship in western part of the state, bypassing two magistrate judges that Kaine and Warner recommended. Tobias said the senators could have tried to hold up a hearing for that nomination, but have chosen not to.
Tobias said the fact that Miller is a federal magistrate judge, and also happens to be from the Peninsula — makes him a strong contender for the job.