The General Assembly this week tapped two deputy commonwealth's attorneys to fill 16th district judicial vacancies that lawmakers initially feared might get the axe.
Charlottesville prosecutor Claude V. Worrell II will fill the seat of former Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court Judge Dwight D. Johnson, who retired Jan. 31. Dale Durrer, who has worked in the Culpeper prosecutor's office since 2004, will replace retired General District Court Judge Roger Morton. They will assume office July 1.
Neither nominee granted media interviews Thursday.
Judicial vacancies became more difficult to fill roughly five years ago, when state lawmakers reeling from the economic downturn set benchmarks requiring courts to demonstrate that a departure would jack case load rates above 25 percent of the state average, said Mary Kate Felch, a senior research associate with the Division of Legislative Services.
In some cases, the threshold increased to 40 percent above average before legislators approved a replacement, she said. Part of the delay stemmed and continues to stem from the state Supreme Court's desire to realign the static number of judgeships to saturate heavily populated areas, said Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle.
For that reason, he said, lawmakers from the counties and cities comprising the 16th district harbored concerns that the vacancies would remain open.
"At a point we thought we had [no judges], then we thought we'd have one, but didn't know which one, and it ended up that we had two," he said.
Worrell and Durrer were picked from a vetted pool of six applicants vying for one or either of the positions, Felch said. Culpeper prosecutor David Barredo, Albemarle County prosecutor Darby Lowe and Louisa County-based attorney and substitute judge Deborah S. Tinsley all made it through to the final round of deliberations.
The Charlottesville Albemarle Bar Association endorsed Tinsley for the position that Worrell secured, a situation that is fairly common when it comes to judicial appointments, Felch said.
Del. David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, said that although he has every confidence in this year's crop of appointments, he wished state lawmakers would give more weight to the recommendations of local attorneys.
"It is unfortunate, in my view, that [local attorneys'] opinions don't hold the water that they should," he said. "They certainly know the candidates better than most do in Richmond."
Although Worrell's position was funded earlier on in the budget process, Durrer was one of 12 incoming judges that Gov. Bob McDonnell folded into budget amendments at the 11th hour, Toscano said.
Candidates for the positions descended on the state Capitol Tuesday for marathon interviews with House and Senate members.
Charlottesville Commonwealth's Attorney Warner D. Chapman, who has worked alongside Worrell since taking office nearly 20 years ago, called him a hands-on practitioner with vast experience and a broad perspective that will serve him well on the bench.
"He is a long-time public servant in our community who has earned the opportunity to serve in this new way," Chapman said. "I'm grateful to know that we will have someone of his caliber in that seat and excited for him to have the opportunity to become a judge."
Worrell has served on the Board of Directors for the Sexual Assault Resource Agency since 2008, and has chaired the group since June 2011, said SARA Executive Director Rebecca Weybright.
"Claude has been very committed to the issues of SARA and I'm sure he will bring that same commitment to the position of judge," she said.
— The Culpeper Star Exponent contributed to this report.