The General Assembly elected new judges Tuesday to benches around the Roanoke Valley, including someone to fill a vacancy left by a Roanoke Juvenile and Domestic Relations District judge who recently and quietly stepped down.
Heather Ferguson will succeed John Weber III, who became a domestic court judge in 2015. His first term on the bench was due to extend through June, and his motivation for departing early has not been announced and remains unclear.
Judge Hilary Griffith, chief of Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court in the 23rd Judicial District, confirmed last week that Weber had left, but referred questions about his departure to the Virginia Supreme Court’s executive secretary. That office did not immediately respond to messages left this week.
Reached by phone Tuesday, Weber said he submitted his resignation Jan. 22. He said he was not able to comment further, but issued a statement in an email that read: “It has been my great honor and privilege to serve the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court and the people of the 23rd Judicial District. I send my very best wishes to the Court moving forward.”
Prior to his election, Weber started his local law practice in 1993 and began serving as a substitute judge in Roanoke Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court in 2008.
Ferguson, a former Franklin County assistant prosecutor, has been an assistant city attorney in Roanoke since 2002, representing the Department of Social Services. She also serves on the Court Improvement Program Advisory Committee, teaching legal principles and foster care timelines to social workers and special advocates, and she speaks to community groups about foster care, child protective services and other DSS functions.
Her judgeship will further shift the makeup of the 23rd District’s Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, which was entirely male until the election of Judge Leisa Ciaffone in 2013. Griffith was elected to the bench in 2015 and, late last year, Melissa Friedman was appointed to fill the vacancy left by Onzlee Ware, who now presides in circuit court. Friedman’s full appointment was certified during this year’s session.
Counting Ferguson, four of that court’s five judges now are women.
“That was planned,” Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, said with a smile. Edwards is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee that oversees the process to elect judges.
Of the nine total judges in the Roanoke Valley’s general district and circuit courts, only one — Judge Jacqueline Talevi — is a woman. The legislature elected her last month to another six-year term.
Lawmakers also voted to give Roanoke Judge Melissa Friedman a six-year term on the juvenile and domestic relations court. Friedman, who was appointed on an interim basis in November, began hearing cases in December.
Friedman graduated from Vanderbilt University School of Law in 1984, then clerked for U.S. District Court Judges Edward Johnstone and James Turk. She began her Roanoke law practice in 1987 and, with attorney Tony Anderson, founded the firm Anderson & Friedman.
The General Assembly also gave another eight-year term to Roanoke Circuit Judge David Carson, as well as six more years to both Montgomery County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Judge Robert Viar, and Griffith in Salem.
The legislature additionally voted to elevate Judge Tim Allen, a Franklin County Juvenile and Domestic Relations judge, to the circuit court. Allen was raised in Franklin County and studied law at George Mason University before opening a private practice in Rocky Mount. He became an assistant prosecutor in 2002 and served until being elected Franklin County commonwealth’s attorney in 2011. Four years later, he was chosen to become a domestic relations judge.
Allen replaces Clyde Perdue, a Rocky Mount attorney who was named a Franklin County Circuit Court judge in 2015. Perdue was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and stepped down over his health concerns in January. Earlier this month he suffered a stroke, was hospitalized and died on Feb. 13.
Attorney Deanna Stone was elected to the juvenile and domestic relations court in Franklin County, and attorney Robert Hagan will take the bench in domestic relations court in Botetourt County.
The Democrat-controlled General Assembly is not expected to pick judges for the planned expansion of the Court of Appeals this before the regular session concludes within the next few days.
The legislature is still trying to figure out whether to grow the bench from 11 to 15 or 17. House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, expressed frustration with the rushed process of vetting candidates. The Virginia State Bar opened up applications during the December holidays for people to be considered for the appeals court. Herring doesn’t want the new judges to take the bench until January.
“Given the gravity of what we’re talking about with the court of appeals, we shouldn’t rush and make sure we have a full vetting process,” Herring said.