Virginia Supreme Court Unanimously Dismisses Ethics Complaint Against Virginia Judges; Clarifies Allowable ‘Political’ Conduct

August 2, 2017

The Supreme Court of Virginia on July 20 unanimously dismissed an ethics complaint against two judges who had advocated against a courthouse relocation referendum, ruling that judges are permitted to publicly address issues concerning the administration of justice. A McGuireWoods legal team provided pro bono representation for Senior Court of Appeals Judge Rudolph Bumgardner III and retired Circuit Judge Humes J. Franklin Jr.

The judges opposed a plan to move Augusta County’s court facilities from a historic 116-year-old courthouse in Staunton to nearby Verona and joined a committee dedicated to defeating the plan in a November 2016 referendum. Voters rejected the proposal by a 2-to-1 ratio.

Virginia’s Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission (JIRC) asked the Supreme Court to censure the judges, alleging that they violated the state’s Canons of Judicial Conduct by engaging in impermissible political activity. The case attracted widespread media attention.

In its unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court held that Virginia judges may publicly address issues concerning the administration of justice, such as the relocation of a courthouse, and that participation in a referendum committee on such a matter is not impermissible political conduct. The ruling provides an important clarification in the scope and application of Virginia’s Canons of Judicial Ethics regarding whether and the manner in which Virginia’s judges may communicate with the public at large. 

The McGuireWoods team was led by Chairman Richard Cullen, and included retired partner Bill Broaddus, senior counsel Robert Loftin, and associates Rebecca Gantt and Jon Urick. Loftin and Broaddus argued the original jurisdiction matter before the Supreme Court on June 8.

The ruling was covered by Virginia Lawyers Weekly, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the Staunton News Leader and The News Virginian of Waynesboro, Virginia.