By Linda Cicoira — The Eastern Shore Bar Association (ESBA) voted “overwhelmingly” on Nov. 6 to recommend that the General Assembly appoint Cela J. Burge as judge of the juvenile and domestic relations (J&DR) courts in Accomack and Northampton counties, Jack Thornton, president of the local bar, confirmed Tuesday.
Burge is Accomack County’s attorney and a member of the Cape Charles Town Council in Northampton. The Eastern Shore court is part of the second judicial circuit, which includes Virginia Beach, but it has its own district.
“All we can do is recommend,” said Thornton, who is also assistant commonwealth’s attorney for Northampton County. “It is rare that a recommendation gets turned down, but it happens,” he said. “Not most of the time.”
Now that the bar has made a recommendation, said Chairman Donald Hart of the Accomack Board of Supervisors, the board would have to start talking about what it will do if Burge becomes a judge. “We’ll probably deal with it more when the new board comes,” he said referring to the two new supervisors who were elected earlier this month and will take office Jan. 1. “We want them to have a say in who the new county attorney will be if AccomackCthere is one,” said Hart.
It is unclear if Burge would have to give up her seat on the Cape Charles Town Council to take the position.
Thornton sent an email Nov. 7 to Sen. Lynwood Lewis, Del. Rob Bloxom, and members of the House and Senate Courts of Justice Committees to make the recommendation.
Judge Croxton Gordon, who has presided in the two J&DR courts since 2007, is retiring at the end of January. Thornton was hoping an appointment would be made later this month at a special session of the General Assembly, but the legislators may not meet or decide until mid-January.
“We would like it to be as seamless as possible,” Thornton said.
In a prepared statement, Burge would only say, “I am honored to have been recommended by the Eastern Shore Bar Association as the candidate for the Juvenile and Domestic Court judgeship that will be vacant upon the retirement of Judge Gordon.”
Thirty of 35 ESBA members in “good standing” voted by proxy or in person regarding the judgeship. Most cast their ballots in person. Only lawyers voted, not judges. Burge received 24 votes.
Initially, four people put their names in: Burge, Patrick Robinson, Carl Bundick, and Elizabeth Wolfe, an assistant commonwealth’s attorney in Accomack. Robinson, who recently became a substitute general district court judge, bowed out early on. Thornton said it was decided at a September meeting that the three candidates would be asked to answer five questions. Each did so by Nov. 1, and addressed the group on Nov. 6, before the poll was conducted.
Prior to becoming county attorney, Burge “practiced frequently in JDR court, often in the role of guardian ad litem,” Thornton said. According to the Virginia court system website, that role is “an attorney appointed by a judge to assist the court in determining the circumstances of a matter before the court. It is the responsibility of the guardian ad litem to provide independent recommendations to the court about the client’s best interests, which can be different from advocating for what the client wants, and to bring balance to the decision-making process.”
“Ms. Burge has exhibited knowledge of the law, a desire to serve, and compassion for persons and families struggling with issues that are frequently at play in the J&DR setting,” Thornton wrote to the legislators. “She is very intelligent and, perhaps even more importantly, extremely diligent and conscientious in her duties whatever they may be, and always conducts herself with dignity and civility toward the court, its members, and the parties.”
Due to the Shore’s separation from the rest of Virginia by the Chesapeake Bay, “we have some unique issues … such as lack of reliable transportation, and other resources that may be taken for granted in larger and/or mainland jurisdictions,” the bar president continued. “In that vein, we … truly desire a judge who is local to the community and has an appreciation for the unique challenges facing our citizens, and specifically our J&DR court.”
Among the cases that go through J&DR courts are juvenile delinquency, crimes against children, domestic abuse and relations, custody, visitation, support cases, petitions for foster care, child services, and paternity.