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Judges Appointed, Over $3 Billion Spent as Special Session Closes

People mill about
Members of the Democratic caucus of the House of Delegates congregate during August's legislative session. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

VPM reporters Whittney Evans and Ben Paviour sat down with host Benjamin Dolle to break down August's special session. The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. For a visual breakdown of how lawmakers proposed to spend $4.3 billion, visit the Virginia Public Access Project.

Benjamin Dolle  
From VPM news in Richmond I'm Benjamin Dolle, Virginia's special session is over just over a week after it started. Lawmakers came up with a plan for more than $4 billion in federal stimulus funds and appointed the slate of new judges. Here to talk about it all are VPM reporters Ben Paviour and Whitney Evans. Ben, Whitney, welcome.

Whittney Evans  
Good to be here.

Ben Paviour  
Thanks for having us.

Dolle  
Whitney, let's start with you. On Tuesday, lawmakers selected eight new judges to Virginia's Court of Appeals. That's a lot of new faces for what is now a 17 person court, and Republicans accused them of packing the court. Remind us what's going on here.

Evans  
Yeah, so a few years back, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court requested a review of Virginia's appellate system to see whether Virginians should have a right to an appeal in all civil and criminal cases. Until now, Virginia was the only state that didn't provide the automatic right to an appeal. The review concluded that having judges take a closer look at more cases will result in more errors being found and fairer trials. So the General Assembly, in response to that review, passed legislation earlier this year that provided the right to appeal, and this meant the court would need more judges to take on all these new cases. And the Democratic majority got to pick six new judges and fill two vacancies that are unrelated to the expansion. All these decisions, starting with the courts initial expansion, happened along party lines. As you can imagine Republicans weren't eager to let them add judges or transform the court in this unprecedented way. Democrats promised a more diverse judiciary, which is right now largely white and male. And to the disappointment of Republicans and much of the public, the vetting process happened largely behind closed doors.

Dolle  
And now that the process is over, what do we know about their eight picks?

Evans  
Well, reform minded advocates got much of what they wanted in the end. There for women and for African Americans on the bench. There's still a bend toward judges from Northern Virginia. But that's to be expected, because that's a big chunk of Virginia's population. Professional diversity was also a focus in these selections. The court was made up of mostly former prosecutors before. Now there are former defense attorneys and lawyers who have experienced representing low-income people.  

Dolle  
Okay, Ben, let's turn to you for a second. We mentioned there's a lot of money coming through the pipeline. Where's that money now? And who's going to get a cut?

Paviour  
So that money is currently in a treasury account. Gov. Ralph Northam quickly signed the budget on Tuesday, so it'll be making its way to state agencies any day now. It wasn't really different than the one he sent to lawmakers last week; they'd already done a lot of negotiating behind closed doors. And so if you think of that $4.3 billion they're spending as a pie chart, almost a quarter of that will go to the Virginia Employment Commission, mostly to replenish its funds and to avoid a tax increase on small businesses. Although there's a little money left over there for some technological overhaul. The next largest slice of the pie, about a fifth of it, is being left unspent to deal with any contingencies caused by the pandemic. And then the third largest item, it's around $500 million goes towards expanding broadband across the state. There's also funding here for schools, for small businesses. There's a lot in this bill.

Man seated behind screen
Sen. Todd Pillion (R-Abingdon) sits behind a partition placed to reduce the potential spread of COVID-19. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Dolle  
And lawmakers actually met in person for all of this, which meant lobbyists and special interests were back in Richmond too.

Paviour  
That's right, Ben. Democrats actually held a big fundraiser hours before the session started, and they, in the process, canceled their first meeting of a commission focused on campaign finance reform. Unlike regular session, it's legal to fundraise during special sessions. And this being an election year for the House of Delegates, the checks to both parties trickled in during this week. So Virginia is known for its lax campaign finance laws, and Democrats have been promising for years to address the issue. Shruti Shah is with the Coalition for Integrity. She says the special session fundraising raises questions about conflicts of interest.


If you look at the intent of the law, there is really no difference between a special or a general session. If you can't fundraise in one you shouldn't be able to fundraise in the other.

Paviour  
The campaign finance commission is now set to have its first meeting on Monday, August 23. And we'll be keeping an eye on that.

Dolle  
Alright, well, Ben, Whitney, thank you both for your reporting on this.

Paviour  
Happy to do it.

Evans  
Thanks, Ben.

Dolle
You're listening to VPM News.