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With two SCC seats open, Senate and House work on two-way deal

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In a May 2019 State Corporation Commission hearing, Judge Judith Jagdmann (right) listened to testimony regarding Dominion Energy’s projects. Mark Christie, also an SCC judge at the time, sat at center.

No weather issues for those traveling on Wednesday.

The Virginia Senate and House of Delegates have failed twice this year to fill an empty seat on the State Corporation Commission, but Judge Judith Jagdmann may have made it easier for the politicians to do their job.

Jagdmann, 64, announced on Friday that she will resign at the end of the year after 16 years on the commission, which is constitutionally independent but still relies on the General Assembly to elect its three judges. The SCC regulates some of the state’s most critical industries, such as electric and natural gas utilities, financial institutions and insurance companies.

Jagdmann resigns from SCC, creating a second vacancy

Her decision to step down gives legislators both the obligation and opportunity to fill two seats at once, making political compromise easier between the Republican-controlled House and Democratic-controlled Senate.

“They get a choice and we get a choice with two openings,” said Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, who chairs the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee with oversight of the SCC.

Saslaw already has talked to his House counterpart, House Commerce and Energy Chair Kathy Byron, R-Bedford, about filling both seats when the assembly convenes on Jan. 12 for a 45-day session.

“I hope to get it done on the first day of session. ... There isn’t any reason that we shouldn’t be able to get it done,” Byron said in an interview on Friday.

But the hopeful tone doesn’t mean the two chambers will elect the two competing candidates they were considering in September. That’s when they failed to reach agreement during a one-day special session on filling a seat vacated earlier in the year, when the House refused to re-elect Judge Angela Navarro.

The assembly had elected Navarro in 2021, when Democrats held the majority in both chambers, to fill the seat vacated by Judge Mark Christie, after his appointment to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

A proposed deal between Saslaw and House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore, R-Scott, would have given the Senate its choice, longtime lobbyist Phil Abraham, in exchange for adjourning at the end of the special session. Adjournment would have given Gov. Glenn Youngkin the power to make judicial appointments and set special elections with the legislature out of session.

Once a model of continuity, SCC becomes casualty of assembly politics

The deal fell apart, partly because the House favored the election of Senior Assistant Attorney General Meade Browder and partly because Senate Democrats didn’t want to give the Republican governor the power to make appointments or schedule a special election to fill the seat of Sen. Jen Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach, who was elected to Congress this month in the 2nd District.

The House adjourned, but the Senate recessed, leaving the governor’s powers in dispute.

“Last time, I think there wasn’t enough frank conversation or trust,” said Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, co-chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Jagdmann’s decision to step down — she didn’t call it retirement in her one-page letter to senior legislators on Friday — gives the assembly an opening for compromise, but not necessarily for the same candidates that the chambers backed in September.

“I think this changes the deck of cards,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, who plays a lead role for Senate Democrats in choosing judicial candidates. “That was when we were trying to find compromise and we each didn’t get our own pick.”

Byron said she still backs Browder, although the House Republican Caucus hasn’t chosen a candidate. Saslaw won’t talk about who is under consideration, but Surovell said “four or five names are in the mix.”

Abraham, director and general counsel at The Vectre Corp., also had been a compromise candidate in 2018 and 2019, when the legislature struggled to replace Judge Jimmy Dimitri, who had retired in early 2018. In 2019, the assembly, then controlled by Republicans in both chambers, elected Patricia West, a retired circuit judge with a long pedigree in the GOP.

The next year, when Democrats regained the majority in both chambers, they summarily replaced West without a judicial interview, and elected Jehmal Hudson, the first African American on the SCC. The move angered Republicans, who retaliated two years later against Navarro.

Dominion, Virginia A.G. agree to cap ratepayer hit on offshore wind

Hudson would be the sole remaining member of the three-judge commission if Jagdmann were to step down on Dec. 31, but she said she would be willing to be recalled in January to ensure a quorum and allow the assembly to elect a replacement.

Jagdmann still has a year left in her third six-year term, which will expire in 2024. She has a long history at the SCC, where she served as counsel for 13 years before becoming a deputy attorney general for civil litigation, including the consumer counsel’s office that intervenes in utility cases at the SCC.

The daughter of former U.S. District Court Judge Glen Williams, the assembly elected Jagdmann as attorney general in 2005 to fill the unexpired term of Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, who had resigned to run for governor as the Republican nominee.

The SCC has changed dramatically during her long history with the institution. The General Assembly has asserted its authority to set policy that supersedes the SCC’s power to rule independently, primarily in cases involving Dominion Energy, the state’s largest electric utility.

On Monday, for example, the commission conducted a hearing on a proposed compromise between Dominion and Attorney General Jason Miyares over construction of a massive $9.8 billion wind farm that the utility proposes to build off the Atlantic Coast.

The legislature mandated in 2020 that the SCC find the 176-turbine wind farm to be in the public interest, despite its misgivings about reliability and the cost to consumers. After the SCC required a performance standard for the turbines that Dominion said would make the project unviable, Miyares brokered a compromise with the company, Walmart and two environmental groups.

“The workload has gotten really heavy,” said Byron, who leads the House commission with oversight of the SCC. “The whole scope of the commission has expanded.”

Legislators in both chambers agree that it’s important to act quickly to fill both seats on the SCC.

“We can’t afford to have vacancies on that commission,” Deeds said. “The State Corporation Commission has a significant number of important issues it has to deal with.”

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