To the editor:
Should the Alexandria Circuit Court judges recuse themselves when City Council is sued?
I have been following the “Missing Middle” housing debate in Arlington County. The County Board quickly passed a change to the county’s zoning ordinance that was immediately opposed by a number of citizens, who brought a lawsuit challenging the new ordinance. The citizens were successful in their initial court hearings and the matter is set for trial. I was happy to see the Arlington County judges all recused themselves from this lawsuit to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. An unbiased outside judge is hearing this case.
Similarly, in the City of Alexandria, City Council quickly adopted a new zoning ordinance called Zoning for Housing, after a very condensed period of public outreach. This also resulted in a citizens’ lawsuit against the city. I have not heard whether the Circuit judges in Alexandria have followed the Arlington judges’ example and recused themselves from this matter.
It seems that the judges in Alexandria have an inherent conflict of interest in hearing this because Alexandria City Council directly contributes and subsidizes the Alexandria Court system above what the State of Virginia appropriates. This year alone, the Circuit Court was funded with $1,620,076 from the city.
The Judicial Canons require that a judge consider three questions when hearing a case:
1. Will the action or inaction threaten the judge’s impartiality?
2. Will the action or inaction harm public trust in the fairness of the judiciary?
3. Will the action or inaction harm the efficient and effective delivery of justice?
Isn’t it an inherent conflict of interest for courts supplementally funded by a City Council that is a litigant to fail to recuse themselves in disputes that come before the court?
I believe there is a clear appearance of impropriety, if not an actual conflict, when Alexandria judges hear and decide cases where City Council is a party. The Alexandria judges should institute a policy to recuse themselves where Council is named a party, including all zoning challenges.
-Tom Foley, Alexandria