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Partisan rift stalls judicial elections

Two ex-delegates caught in crossfire

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RICHMOND The Virginia General Assembly postponed a squabble over judicial appointments after a partisan standoff Tuesday in the state Senate threatened to shut down the upper chamber for up to three days.

The politically thorny issue brought the Senate's 20-20 split between Republicans and Democrats to an uncomfortable head, with neither side willing to back down over the election of two judges, both former delegates.

Senate Democrats said they were blindsided by Republicans' desire to elect the two "non-incumbents." While they had nothing against the two candidates, they had the understanding that the Tuesday vote would only be to reappoint judges, Democrats said.

"Just for two names, they're willing to shut the entire General Assembly down and the careers of a lot of judges just to keep those two names in there," Senate Democratic leader Richard L. Saslaw of Fairfax said of Tuesday's impasse.

Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr., James City County Republican, derided the Democrats' position as "obstructionist behavior" and "partisan political extortion."

The 20-20 split could not be broken by Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, as his tiebreaking authority does not extend to electing judges. And because the Senate was operating under a special order used to elect judges, no other business, including committee meetings, could be conducted until the impasse was resolved. The body can recess for up to three days, but senators eventually voted to postpone the vote and take it up on Thursday.

The squabble arose from the proposed elections of two former state delegates, Clifford L. "Clay" Athey Jr., Fauquier Republican, and Clarence E. "Bud" Phillips, Russell County Democrat.

Mr. Norment asked Mr. Saslaw whether the Senate Courts of Justice Committee voted on Monday to certify Mr. Athey and Mr. Phillips, along with the 47 incumbent judges, to which Mr. Saslaw gave a qualified yes.

"I hate to disappoint my good friend from James City County, but finding them qualified doesn't mean I want to make them a judge 24 hours later," said Mr. Saslaw.

"I am not easily disappointed, although I have been today," Mr. Norment shot back.

Mr. Norment then asked if the Democratic position was really a question of selecting judges or one of "bruised egos" resulting from the GOP's organizing the Senate on the first day of the session and refusing to accede to requests to share power. A number of Democrats were bounced from committee posts, and the GOP has already used its newfound power to muscle through redrawn maps for the state's 11 congressional districts that will likely preserve Republicans' 8-3 majority in the U.S. House.

"Generally speaking, I don't get into the motives of what you all do, and you ought not get into the motives of what we do," Mr. Saslaw said.

Mr. Norment said he would take that as an indication that the move was, in fact, a result of "bruised political egos."

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