One senator’s signature was all that stood between Judge John Farmer and another six years on the bench as his nomination wended its way through the Virginia General Assembly in mid-January.
By that point, Farmer, a juvenile and domestic relations court judge in Dickenson County, Va., had picked up his local bar association’s endorsement, been found qualified by bipartisan panels in the House of Delegates and the Senate, and sailed through the lower chamber on a unanimous vote.
He had the backing of William C. Wampler Jr., a Republican and Southwest Virginia’s senior state senator, which left Phillip P. Puckett – a Democrat who had approved Farmer’s initial appointment in 2002 – as the last legislative gatekeeper.
But Puckett, citing confidential complaints he had received about Farmer, bucked the momentum the nomination had gathered and refused to sign off on it – effectively derailing the reappointment.
Puckett’s opposition set up a legislative impasse with the Republican-controlled House, which will leave Farmer’s seat in the 29th Judicial District vacant when his term expires Monday.
Puckett’s unilateral move drew cries of partisan politics from some quarters, but his colleagues in the General Assembly largely downplayed the conflict, framing it as an anomaly among scores of examples of bipartisan cooperation in selecting judges.
Still, the Farmer controversy is a striking example of the power a single lawmaker can wield in judicial appointments, and raises questions of how insulated judges are from the political process.
‘This is not about politics’
Six years ago, when Farmer’s name first came up for appointment, Puckett took his colleagues’ advice and supported him.
"I’ve learned since then I probably should not have done that," the senator said in a telephone interview in February. "I did not know who John Farmer was initially. To this day, I don’t believe he was qualified to sit on the bench at that time."
Puckett has been in Farmer’s courtroom – to serve as a character witness for a woman he attended church with – but said the visit did not influence his opinion of the judge. Outside of his legislative role, Puckett works as a bank vice president.
But Puckett is closely tied to the juvenile and domestic relations courtroom in Russell County, where Farmer had served weekly as judge.
Puckett’s daughter, attorney Martha Ketron, works for a law firm that represents the county’s Department of Social Services and argues cases before Farmer. And the firm’s principal, A. Benton Chafin Jr., serves on the six-member board of directors of the First Bank & Trust Co. – Puckett’s employer.
As the bank’s immediate past chairman, Chafin would have served in an "advisory capacity" in hiring senior-level management, said Leton Harding, the bank’s executive vice president. Chafin also is the brother of Circuit Court Judge Teresa M. Chafin in Tazewell County, Va.
Puckett said that Benton Chafin is not his boss and that he was hired by William Hayter, the bank’s president, chief executive and member of the board.
Ketron and Chafin did not respond to several interview requests.
Puckett said he may have spoken with Chafin about Farmer but does not recall the attorney taking a position "one way or the other." He said his daughter did not give him any feedback on Farmer.
"She’s not been involved in my deliberation and has had nothing to do with it," he said.
Puckett said he spoke with Farmer and met with him once in person, and decided not to support him based on confidential correspondence he received from "people who work in his court," including attorneys and the general public. He declined to identify his sources and specific cases that drew complaints.
The lawmaker described the complaints against Farmer in general terms, such as "not fully listening to all of the evidence," and cited several incidents in which he said Farmer failed to consider court-ordered studies on "whether to place a child in a foster home or leave the child in the home they’re in."
Said Puckett: "I did not make this decision lightly. I have been accused of making it from a political standpoint. This is not about politics."
As proof, Puckett points to other times he has blocked a reappointment, including judges with Democratic leanings and one who was a "personal friend."
Donald McGlothlin Jr., a circuit court judge in Russell County who left the bench in 2002, was not reappointed amid public complaints of a backlog of cases and because the judge divorced his wife and married the woman who was his court reporter.
"Our kids went to school together, I’ve been in his home, and I still count him as a friend," Puckett said. "I have a responsibility ... to see that an individual sitting on the bench is held to a higher standard."
McGlothlin did not respond to several requests for comment.
Several area lawmakers who had endorsed Farmer rebuked Puckett mildly for his opposition.
"I’m sorry Phillip chose to get rid of [Farmer]," said Delegate Anne B. Crockett-Stark, a 6th District Republican. "I did not want to get rid of him."
Wampler, Puckett’s Republican counterpart in the Senate, said "we agreed to disagree."
"The best job I ever had"
Eleven days before his term was set to expire, Farmer described his contingency plan to a reporter: "Keep being a judge."
Though his six-year term ends Monday, there are two ways Farmer could resume his seat on the bench: Puckett could throw him his support when the legislature reconvenes in special session on April 23, although Puckett said he remains opposed to Farmer. Or, if legislators fail to fill the vacancy, the circuit court judges for the 29th Judicial District could appoint Farmer until lawmakers meet again next year.
"I want to pursue this," Farmer said in a recent interview in his Russell County chambers. He had just emerged from a valedictory luncheon of soup beans and meringue pies, catered by court staff.
"It’s the best job I’ve ever had," he said with a hint of emotion. "Six years have been like six minutes."
Farmer, 57, is not married and has no children. The son of a coal-miner father and a stay-at-home mother, he was the first in his family to attend college and became active in Republican politics in Dickenson County after graduating from law school.
He served as chairman of Dickenson’s Republican Party from 1978-79 and opened a private practice with Joseph E. Wolfe – a college buddy and now a prominent Republican benefactor.
Prior to taking the bench, Farmer pastored a "small Southern Baptist church" for 10 years and practiced law privately for 25 years. When a juvenile and domestic relations court position opened up, it wasn’t Farmer’s idea to put in for it, he said.
"People approached me," he said, declining to name legislators. The appointment was "basically a political process" he said, "and I have been the beneficiary."
But the learning curve was steep, and several attorneys who practiced before Farmer expressed an initial discontent that evolved into respect for his work on the bench.
"I didn’t think John should have been appointed to the bench," Jay Steele, a veteran lawyer based in Lebanon, Va., told the Herald Courier in January after Farmer’s reappointment fell through. "He was a terrible judge when he started, but he’s grown in the position and does not need to be removed for the reasons [Puckett] has given."
Seth Baker, president of the 19-member Dickenson County Bar Association that unanimously endorsed Farmer, agreed the judge had a rough start, but lauded him for his tact and sensitivity in cases where emotions run high.
"There are so many emotions involved in [juvenile and domestic relations] court," Baker said. "Every decision you make, you’re going to make someone mad. He handles it well. He will let everyone speak their piece, and I respect that."
Farmer was guarded in reacting to Puckett’s opposition. "Sen. Puckett, you know, can speak for himself," he said.
And with his term all but finished, he offered a qualified critique of the judicial-appointment process.
"If you go into a sausage factory, the process is not very pretty sometimes," he said. Asked if that was still a good process, he dropped the metaphor.
"It was a good process that got me to be appointed judge," he said.
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