COMMONWEALTH’S Attorney LaBravia Jenkins, who has served as chief prosecutor in Fredericksburg since 2008, was nominated by the regional delegation to the General Assembly to fill an open district court judgeship. Since judges in Virginia are elected by members of the state legislature, getting the imprimatur of local lawmakers is not unusual, but a key part of the process.
What was unusual was what happened to Jenkins’ nomination after that. She was apparently blackballed in the House of Delegates for standing up to then- Gov. Terry McAuliffe four years ago.
There’s no question that the veteran prosecutor and former president of the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys, who was inducted into the Virginia Lawyers Hall of Fame just last year, has the legal chops to sit on the bench after personally prosecuting more than 100 jury trials in Fredericksburg.
Jenkins also helped establish the Safe Harbor Child Advocacy Center, which brings professionals together in one place to help ease the trauma of young victims and witnesses of crimes in the city, as well as Spotsylvania, Stafford, King George and Caroline counties. That and her work with victims of domestic violence have given her firsthand knowledge into the multi-generational damage done by criminal activity.
But Jenkins’ reputation as a tough but fair prosecutor was no match for a group of back-biting members of the House who wanted to punish her for daring to criticize McAuliffe, then reportedly considering a presidential run, when he attempted to restore voting rights to more than 200,000 felons en masse in 2016.
Jenkins was one of 43 commonwealth’s attorneys in Virginia who signed an amicus brief opposing McAuliffe’s executive order. The governor vowed revenge even though every prosecutor who signed the brief was in favor of restoration, just not the way McAuliffe was going about it.
In the brief, the prosecutors listed the reasons they opposed McAuliffe’s blanket restoration attempt, including the fact that it would increase the burden on them to screen out felons selected for jury duty, since the names are chosen from voter registration lists and McAuliffe refused to release the names despite a Freedom of Information Act request. Another objection was that it “eliminated the entire first level of review for all felons” to having their gun rights restored.
In a 2019 interview with Blue Virginia, Jenkins explained why she signed the brief: “The Constitution of Virginia says that people who’ve been convicted of felonies cannot vote, cannot sit on a jury. And the Code of Virginia says that those people also cannot own or possess firearms. But it does provide that the governor can restore the rights of someone who’s been convicted … That amicus brief stated what the law was at the time. I think that in trying to restore the rights of 200,000 felons all at once, the governor was taking a shortcut … I signed on because it was the right thing to do.”
Blanket restoration was an illegal shortcut, as it turned out. Prosecutors like Jenkins who signed the brief were right—and McAullife was wrong. His attempted maneuver was ruled unconstitutional by the Virginia Supreme Court in a 4–3 decision.
The majority noted that “never before have any of the prior 71 Virginia Governors issued a clemency order of any kind—including pardons, reprieves, commutations, and restoration orders—to a class of unnamed felons without regard for the nature of the crimes or any other individual circumstances relevant to the request.” Felons currently have to apply to the Secretary of the Commonwealth before the governor restores their civil rights on an individual basis.
Jenkins herself said that her decision to sign the amicus brief was the only explanation she was given as to why her name was withdrawn from consideration. Sen. Richard Stuart, R–Stafford, objected to the House Democratic leadership’s decision that she was not an “appropriate candidate” for the bench. “It’s not right, because our delegation agreed on her,” Stuart said in Jenkins’ defense.
House Democrats have now decided that as long as they are in power, even a successful and independent veteran prosecutor like Jenkins—who is a leader in her field and has the bipartisan backing of her local legislative delegation—will not be elevated to the bench just because she publicly objected to an unconstitutional action by a former sitting governor.
The flip side of this new standard means that only craven sycophants who are willing to approve anything the chief executive does, legal or not, will be considered for judgeships. People of substance who insist on the rule of law—even when it is not politically expedient for the ruling party—are being excluded from Virginia’s judicial branch.
The House Democratic leadership’s outrageous rejection of LaBravia Jenkins’ judicial nomination is not only an insult to the Fredericksburg delegation and the thousands of residents they represent, it is a clear indication that they are willing to subordinate the integrity and independence of the judiciary to their partisan political goals – and to punish anybody who doesn’t go along.
Caveat emptor, Virginia. You get what you vote for.