Female judges in Virginia on the rise


HAMPTON, Va. (AP) – Slowly but surely, the number of women judges in Virginia courtrooms is increasing.

According to the National Association for Women Judges, nearly a third of Virginia attorneys — or 32% — are women, up from 19% in 2008.

Hampton General District Court is a case in point: all three judges — Corry N. Smith, Selena Stellute Glenn, and Tonya Henderson-Stith — are women.

In fact, this court was ahead of its time: When Glenn got the job four years ago, Hampton General District became the first multi-judge courthouse in the state with an all-women chamber.

Now other courts are joining in.

Henrico County’s five-judge District Court for Youth and Family Relations became an all-women entity in July.

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Three of the four judges in the Chesapeake General District Court are women. There are a few smaller counties with multiple courthouses run exclusively by women.

The fact that Hampton General District Court has an all-female judge has tangible implications for how the system works, some local attorneys say.

“Oh my god, yes,” said Hampton attorney Michele Barnette Cavanaugh when asked if she saw a difference. “I think it runs much more efficiently. The parties that come in there – we’re in and we’re out. There is no sitting around time.”

The judges say they work well together and have robust communications designed to keep the judiciary moving.

“We’re a team,” Glenn said. “We’re constantly checking each other to see if we can transfer cases into each other’s courtrooms so we can do our files efficiently.”

More efficient filing, she said, means “attorneys, litigants and law enforcement officials aren’t waiting hours for their case to be called.”

For her part, Smith said the weekly collegial meetings of the three Hampton judges were critical in keeping things running smoothly.

“We try to just get together and share at least once a week,” she said. “Maybe something strange happened in court and we’re racking our brains — that was the pattern of facts and that was the argument and that was my verdict, what do you think?”

The permissive talks, Smith said, range from streamlining office operations to changes to the dockets “of what’s going on in each other’s lives.”

Virginia now has 146 sitting women judges, or 32% of the state’s total of 453 judges, according to a table of the Daily Press’ statewide judge lists.

This rate is just below the national average. Across the country, 34% of judges are women, up from 25% in 2008, according to the National Association of Women Judges.

Two of the Virginia Supreme Court’s seven justices are women, accounting for 29% of the High Court’s membership. Seven women sit on the Virginia Court of Appeals, or 41% of those 17 members.

But women are far less represented in Virginia’s judicial courts, where all crimes and major civil cases are settled. Of 170 judges in Virginia’s circuit courts, only 19% – or 32 – are women.

Meanwhile, women make up 33% of the lawyers in the general circuit courts that hear criminal misdemeanor, traffic and minor civil cases, and probable crime hearings.

But women make up nearly half — or 48% — of judges in juvenile courts and domestic relations courts statewide. These are courts that deal with children and family matters.

The increase in female judges stems in part from a larger pool of applicants: while women made up only 8% of attorneys nationwide in 1980, they now make up more than half of all practicing attorneys in the United States.

Although the Virginia General Assembly votes on judges as a whole, a long tradition gives local legislatures great respect in selecting them.

and Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, said it only makes sense for women to win judge seats.

“For too long in the Commonwealth women have been excluded from the judiciary,” Mullin said. “I am pleased to see that there is growing parity between men and women on the bench.”

Given that “the general trend is towards more women lawyers, I think it’s high time the bank upped the ante.”

When asked that only 19% of circuit court judges nationwide are women, Mullin said, “There’s still more work to be done to ensure we have benches that reflect our communities.”

Senator Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the trend toward more female judges is being driven by the fact that more female attorneys are “at the age where people want to be judges.”

“People don’t usually get considered for the bench until they’ve practiced for at least 10, 15, 20 years,” he said. “And so we just have a much, much larger pool of women available right now.”

Surovell said he and other members of the Fairfax delegation worked hard to achieve more “gender balance” there. “A diversity of life experiences” is important at the bench, he said, including “female life experiences.”

In the Hampton General District, several local attorneys say the all-women chamber allows litigants to “feel heard” even if they lose a case.

Local attorney Matt Ballard said that while the city has a longstanding legacy of judicial fairness, “with these three, if you’re a defendant, you’re certainly going to get a fair shake.”

“All three seem to have the kind of life experience where they’re genuine and can relate to ordinary people,” he said. (He does not practice before Glenn because she is his sister-in-law).

In traffic courts, where many people aren’t represented by an attorney, “all three judges take the time to explain things and help certain people understand what’s going on,” Ballard said.

“I’ve never seen any of the three lose patience with anyone,” he added.

Longtime local defense attorney J. Ashton Wray Jr. said he thinks the peninsula’s female judges are “outstanding” and said they “offer a different point of view”.

“They are well prepared, they know the law, and I find that when there are circumstances, they are sensitive to people’s circumstances,” Wray said. “That was honestly refreshing to me… I find that women judges are often very willing to listen to explanations.”

Local defender Timothy Clancy, on the other hand, said the all-women bank in the Hampton General District made no appreciable difference in either direction.

“It’s just not that big of a deal,” he said. “It’s interesting, but I’m not aware of any discernible impact on the judiciary in the city of Hampton.”

But that’s a good thing, too, said Clancy. “I’ve always hoped and dreamed” of the day when such things as a judge’s gender or race would be “not an issue and not even a concern”.

In Hampton, while Smith said that she and her two fellow lawyers have increased their communication, “I don’t think there’s any difference” in how justice is done today compared to before.

“I always joke that we just smell better than the courthouses where it’s all men,” she joked. “We decorate and smell better.”

It’s true that some of the courthouse’s judiciary chambers – a fancy term for judges’ offices – look a little less run-down these days.

When Glenn moved into her new quarters in 2018, the space was in dire need of fresh paint and a new desk to replace the bamboo-style wallpaper and creaky desk from the building’s 1991 foundation.

But Glenn said she updated the office — with light “Seafoam Green” paint, a mahogany desk and new carpet — mostly because she didn’t want visitors to feel the “emptiness” of the popular man she replaced : Judge Albert “Pat” Patrick III, a longtime judge who died unexpectedly in 2017.

The renovation, she said, “was for other people not to be so sad when they returned to the exact same room that he left — except I was sitting there.”

But Glenn hung a picture of Patrick in her office and said she tries to match his kind and patient demeanor.

“I hope litigants will leave my courtroom feeling that they have been heard and that they have had a fair day in court,” she said.

Smith, meanwhile, has a sign in her chamber that reads, “What Would Judge Patrick Do?” near an action figure of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the late US Supreme Court Justice.

Smith and Glenn are each the daughters of prominent Hampton attorneys. Smith’s father is criminal defense attorney Ron Smith, while Glenn is the daughter of Joseph Stellute, a longtime attorney who died in early October. Henderson-Stith declined an interview.

“We have three great judges,” said Cavanaugh, Hampton’s attorney. “Our girls are the best”

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