Pamela O’Berry, Chesterfield County’s longest-serving Black judge, has lost her bid for a third, six-year term after two of the county’s three state senators declined to nominate her Tuesday in a process that would have added her name to a block of certified judges the Senate voted to elect.
Sen. Amanda Chase signed the nomination form for O’Berry’s reappointment, but Sen. Joe Morrissey and Sen. Ghazala Hashmi — who were opposed to O’Berry since early in the process — did not. Consequently, O’Berry’s name was not added to a list of 10 general district court judges statewide whom the full Senate voted Tuesday to elect. Separately, the Senate voted to elect an 11th general district court judge who had been removed from the larger list.
O’Berry’s supporters held out hope that she would be re-elected after Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, led an effort on Monday in the Senate Judiciary Committee to have her certified for reappointment on a 9-3 vote. Morrissey, who has led the effort against O’Berry, strongly objected and tried to derail the certification vote.
O’Berry “is entitled to the dignity of a sitting judge to have a certification” vote, said Norment, who emphasized that certifying a judge does not necessarily mean that a jurist also will be elected. O’Berry is one of only two Black judges sitting in Chesterfield.
Norment stepped forward after the State Conference of the NAACP and the Black Ministers’ Conference of Richmond & Vicinity sent a letter to selected legislators on Friday that called for a vote on O’Berry’s certification. The organizations also asked for an immediate independent investigation of the Judiciary Committee’s judicial selection and appointment process, calling out Morrissey specifically.
“She’s done,” Chase said of O’Berry’s work on the bench after her term expires March 31. “Unfortunately I think she’s a good judge. I would love to seen her back on there but no one from the Democratic caucus was willing to put her name forward [during this week’s Senate sessions], and no one from the Republican caucus was willing to put her name on there. I was willing to do it, but I knew that I didn’t have the votes.”
Rules of the Senate allow any senator to nominate a certified candidate for election by the full body, but no one thus far has stepped forward with the special session nearing its end.
Said Morrissey: “I think it speaks volumes that out of 39 senators, not one senator placed her name in nomination. And it doesn’t have to do with anything other than her record, and I can’t be any more blunt than that.”
“Before this even began, I didn’t want it to play out in public,” he said. “And I told the chief judge in Chesterfield General District Court, and as a courtesy to Judge O’Berry, that she does not have the support in the Senate, and I think respectfully she should withdraw. And I went over the reasons: the judicial vetting in December and her [judicial performance] evaluations. Most judges when they hear that, they don’t go forward. She chose to.”
Hashmi said she made her decision not to support O’Berry “independent of any other senator or delegate representing Chesterfield County. My decision is based exclusively on the testimony and advocacy of the Chesterfield NAACP, attorneys in practice in Chesterfield, and community members from Chesterfield County. These individuals are strongly committed to criminal justice reform in the county.”
In considering judges for election or re-election, the Senate and House traditionally follow the wishes of the legislative delegation that represents the locality where the judge sits or will sit. “You have to have the entire Chesterfield delegation to nominate a judge, and I was the only one willing to sign off on her, moving forward,” Chase said.
Tuesday’s decision marks the second time that O’Berry has been rebuffed in less than a month.
On Jan. 26, O’Berry’s name was left off a Senate list of 45 judges that the Senate voted that day to re-elect for additional terms. The body followed the recommendation of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which dropped O’Berry’s name from consideration without a vote. By contrast, the House of Delegates included O’Berry on its list of judges to be elected.
O’Berry’s reappointment pitted a sizeable segment of Chesterfield’s legal community, along with a number of current and former politicians, the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus and the state NAACP against supporters of criminal justice reform that included community activists and the Chesterfield Branch of the NAACP.
The latter group vehemently opposed O’Berry, accusing her of doling out harsh punishments, wrongly holding criminal defendants without bail and disrespecting their rights, especially in the Black and Hispanic communities.
“For 12 years, she has had the opportunity to display the judicial temperament, compassion and more informed approach to the job and she hasn’t,” Chesterfield NAACP President Avohom Carpenter said in a letter sent to state Democratic senators this week. “In my capacity as President of the Chesterfield NAACP, I have witnessed at least 10 complaints about Judge O’Berry dealing with courtroom decorum, harsh sentencing, violation of civil rights among other complaints.”
By contrast, O’Berry’s supporters almost uniformly described her as a fair, unbiased and thoughtful jurist, who after 12 years on the bench, would take to her heart the criticisms she received to become an even better jurist.
“The process we have witnessed this year of demeaning and disparaging sitting judges and lawyers based on personal grudges and innuendo without corroboration violates fundamental fairness and is unconscionable,” the state NAACP said in its Feb. 19 letter in support of O’Berry. “The Joint Judicial Selection Committee heard the extensive testimony presented by Judge O’Berry in her one hour interview on Dec. 11, and they also heard a very diverse group of lawyers and supporters who spoke on her behalf.”
O’Berry could not be reached for comment on Wednesday. O’Berry previously said that Virginia’s canons of judicial conduct precluded her from commenting publicly.