Virginia Legislators Sow a Legacy of Seediness
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
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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