Our View: Remove partisan labels from criminal justice posts

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Alexandria has had few public servants like Ed Semonian.

This is in part due to his extraordinary 40-year tenure as Alexandria’s clerk of the circuit court. But it’s also a testament to his quiet, kindly competence.

As our page 1 story, “Circuit court clerk steps down after 40 years” shows, Semonian is well regarded by multiple generations of Alexandria lawyers who have dealt with him in their law practices or official capacities.

But there are two things about Semonian’s tenure that we don’t like, and they’re not his fault in the slightest: the clerk of the court position should not be elected, and it most emphatically should not be a partisan post.

We believe that none of our locally elected posts should be partisan. Our school board members are elected without party labels, and our mayor and city council should be as well. Local governance is about competence, accessibility and transparency. Party labels are meaningless in the context of local issues.

It’s even more appalling that party labels are attached to some positions in our local and state justice systems.

Again, it’s not the fault of the officeholders – the elected nature of these positions emanates from state law – but our sheriff, our commonwealth’s attorney and our clerk of the court should not be identified as being from one party or the other. Justice and law enforcement should be politically blind.

We also think these posts should be appointed and not elected, like our police chief is appointed by the city manager. But at a minimum they should be non-partisan.

Virginia’s circuit court system has a three-tiered process where voting is involved in selecting the clerk of the court, circuit judges and even the chief judge of the circuit, according to the Supreme Court of Virginia’s website.

The clerk is elected to an eight-year term by citizens of the locality where they will serve, with a party affiliation attached. Circuit court judges are also elected for eight-year terms, but they are voted on by both houses of the Virginia General Assembly. The chief judge is selected by a majority vote of the circuit judges.

Since Virginia’s judges do not campaign directly before voters in the localities where they work, it’s difficult to argue with the manner in which they and the chief judge are selected. Their selection is not the result of a directly partisan process, though, of course, whichever party controls the general assembly has the final say on circuit judges – just as whichever party controls the U.S. Senate has final say on U.S. Supreme Court justices and other federal judges.

The problem with partisan elections for justice-related posts is that they taint the integrity of our judicial system by linking those positions to a specific political party. If we must elect these officials, we should at least remove the party labels. It’s an issue that Alexandrians should ask our state delegates and senators to pursue.

Given the issues that continue to roil our public safety and judicial systems nationwide, Virginians should try to boost our system’s integrity by removing partisan labels from our officeholders.

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