On Tuesday, March 28, 2023, The Virginian-Pilot published an editorial titled “Improving judicial transparency” which tackled a recent bill passed by the General Assembly requiring the state’s Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission (JIRC) to disclose the names of judges who have been found to have broken the state’s judicial canons, identify which rule they violated, and detail the sanctions they received.

The bill, sponsored by Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick, was approved by a 67-31 vote, with more than a dozen Democrats voting in favor but the majority voting against. 

However, the legislation that was passed will only be applicable to those judges found guilty as of July 1, 2023. Earlier versions of the bill called for the Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission to list judges who had received discipline going back seven years.

Summary of the bill as passed reads:

“Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission; annual report; breach of Canons of Judicial Conduct; disciplinary action. Requires the Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission to include in its annual report (i) the name of any judge who the Commission concluded breached the Canons of Judicial Conduct and took disciplinary action against as a result of such conclusion if the date on which the Commission reached such conclusion was after the previous annual report was published; (ii) the specific Canons of Judicial Conduct breached by such judge; and (iii) the disciplinary action taken against such judge by the Commission. The bill provides that the provisions of this act shall apply only to disciplinary actions taken on or after July 1, 2023.”

As things stand now, almost all of the JIRC records are strictly confidential and the public only learns about it when a judge is found guilty of a proven violation serious enough to warrant referral to the Virginia Supreme Court to decide whether to formally censure the judge or remove him or her from the bench.

According to the editorial, Virginia is one of only two states, along with South Carolina, in which the state supreme court and all general jurisdiction trial courts have judges appointed by the legislature. Voters in Virginia will be better able to hold legislators to account for their judicial appointments if they are aware of which judges have broken the law and how those judges were punished.

As opposed to “defaming” those who have received discipline, opponents of the proposal argued that it is preferable to leave things as they are, with lawmakers considering any misconduct “in confidence” when determining whether to reappoint judges.

The editorial points out that the public must know who are the judges that have been found guilty of misconduct just like any regular person who has committed an offense.

Another assertion was that the oversight board might become reluctant to deal with relatively minor offenses if all disciplinary proceedings against judges were made public, to which the editor addressed by saying:

“That position raises the question of whether Virginians are capable of distinguishing between minor and major offenses. A legitimate response might suggest that a viable democracy should operate with some confidence in the judgment of its citizens.”

The editorial commended the four Senate Democrats who crossed the aisle to support the passage of the bill, saying such a move was “encouraging,” given that we are in highly partisan times. Adding that, it was difficult for lawmakers to strike the right balance between privacy and openness.

It concluded, that with some flexibility from lawmakers, thoughtful discussions like this one lead to stronger legislation and, ultimately, a stronger commonwealth. A fundamental aspect of democracy is the ability to reach agreements between opposing viewpoints, often with some merit on both sides.

The move represents a bipartisan commitment to the transparency Virginia needs in Richmond. Members of Congress should be applauded for improving the balance between privacy and publicity in the way our courts operate.


Source: The Virginian-Pilot