Last edited: December 07, 2004

Virginia Legislators Sow a Legacy of Seediness

Washington Post, January 23, 2003
1150 15th Street NW, Washington, DC 20071

By Marc Fisher

RICHMOND—Judge Verbena Askew apparently lied, and that’s not a good thing for any judge to do. The judge also was on the bad end of a $64,000 settlement with an administrator in her Virginia courthouse who accused Askew of propositioning her—not the most decorous position for a public official, either.

Today, with heavy hearts, genuine tears and barely concealed glee, Virginia legislators threw Askew off the bench, denying her reappointment as a Circuit Court judge in Newport News. Verdict: Askew lied about the advances and then did her darnedest to cover it up. Sound familiar?

This was the culminating act in the General Assembly’s Let’s Hear Juicy Bits About Lesbians Week, a seedy little enterprise in which the ever-bolder Republican majority had itself a whale of a time grilling judges about their sexual pleasures. Oh, they larded the proceedings with protestations of their lack of interest in anyone’s private affairs, but man, they just couldn’t wait to get their hands on documents detailing the judge’s alleged sexual stumbles. They subjected Askew to a seven-hour hearing last week that featured hardly a word about her performance as a judge, but endless questions about her, heh heh, proclivities.

After today’s concluding episode, I asked Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach), chairman of the Senate Courts of Justice Committee, whether there would have been any interest in debating Askew’s reappointment had it not been for the accusations from the courthouse employee.

"No," Stolle said. "This came to us because there was a sexual harassment complaint and as part of an effort to cover that up, the judge did a number of things she shouldn’t have done."

Does this sound like a junior version of the Bill and Monica Show? It’s not about sex, it’s about lying about sex, legislators kept saying, even as they passed hour upon hour in packed hearing rooms, referring one another to the best parts in the transcripts.

Of course, Virginia legislators need not travel so far back in time for inspiration. They have the even fresher case of S. Vance Wilkins Jr., the House speaker who was forced into retirement last year after The Washington Post reported that he paid $100,000 to settle a sexual harassment claim made by a woman who worked at his old construction company.

So lawmakers have harassment on the brain these days. But to black legislators, the Askew probe was nothing short of a "lynching," an "execution" by whites who, as Sen. Henry L. Marsh III (D-Richmond) put it, "held her to a standard that no other judge is held to, regarding questions of a purely personal nature."

Well, not quite. Askew may have been ashamed to admit whatever she did with or to her accuser in the harassment case, but she indeed answered no on a bar association questionnaire that asked whether she was the subject of any legal or administrative proceeding. Judges, of all people, should tell it straight. Heck, they are a controlling legal authority.

Marsh accused his colleagues of "an effort to get this judge." There he is right. Are legislators systematically vetting all of Virginia’s judges? Or are they leaping to investigate judges who veer from the straight and narrow sexual path? The three judicial targets of interest this session were Askew; Court of Appeals Judge Rosemarie Annunziata, who was grilled about her opinion in a case involving a lesbian relationship; and state Supreme Court Justice Barbara Keenan, who was asked about her dissent arguing against removing a child from a mother’s custody solely because the mother is a lesbian. (Legislators eventually approved Annunziata’s reappointment and reelected Keenan.)

Richmond is still a place where lawmakers get good mileage out of jokes about homosexuality. And—no joke—Virginia is one of a dwindling number of states where sodomy is still illegal. That fact last week led Del. Robert F. McDonnell (R-Virginia Beach), chairman of the House courts committee, to opine that anyone who engages in oral or anal sex might not be qualified to be a judge in Virginia.

An enterprising reporter from the Daily Press in Newport News asked McDonnell whether he had ever violated the state’s "crimes against nature" law. "Not that I can recall," he replied.

That’s not a clear "No," is it? Hearings, anyone?

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