Come summer, the 17th Circuit Court that includes Arlington and Falls Church will be back to four judges, now that the General Assembly has elected Judith Wheat, a veteran trial attorney, to join the bench.
Wheat had been selected in 2018 by the Arlington delegation as its choice for the position, but the actual filling of several statewide judicial posts was held up for a year.
Del. Patrick Hope (D-47th), who helped shepherd Wheat’s election through the General Assembly, said he was glad she soon will be a judge.
“She’ll continue the court’s longstanding tradition as one of the best in the commonwealth,” Hope said.
When her eight-year term begins on July 1, Wheat will join Judges Louise Di Matteo and Daniel S. Fiore II and Chief Judge William Newman Jr. on the bench.
As late as 2011, the 17th Circuit had four judges – Newman, Benjamin Kendrick, James Almand and Joanne Alper – but the retirements of Almand and Kendrick in late 2011 and Alper in 2012 denuded its ranks. Newman soldiered on alone for a period of several months, assisted by substitute judges.
In 2012, the General Assembly elected Di Matteo and Fiore to full terms, but legislators balked at approving a fourth judge. A 2013 state study concluded that Arlington’s judicial workload was worthy of 2.8 positions, putting aspirations for a fourth slot on hold.
Hope said some of the unsung heroes of the local judiciary in recent years have been the judges of the 17th Circuit, who often deal with complex cases. Despite the workload, the Circuit Court “has continued to provide the highest quality of services to all litigants and citizens of Arlington,” Hope said.
A graduate of Georgetown Law School, Wheat is a fellow of the Litigation Counsel of America, and “has over 20 years’ of experience representing businesses and individuals in all facets of litigation, including criminal investigations and defense – she has tried numerous criminal cases in both federal and state court, and is adept at plea negotiations and sentencing strategy,” notes her biography at Griffith & Wheat PLLC, her Washington-based law firm.
Wheat attended law school at night while working in the office of David Bell, then the clerk of the Circuit Court for Arlington and Falls Church.
“Judy is a brilliant lawyer,” Bell told the Sun Gazette. “Her election to the bench continues a long tradition of deputy clerks of Arlington with outstanding legal and judicial careers. It was my good fortune that she worked for me prior to passing the bar.”
Bell’s successor as clerk of the Circuit Court, Paul Ferguson, first met Wheat in the 1980s when he was an attorney in private practice and she was a courtroom clerk for Bell.
“Over the years, I followed her legal career, which was impressive, “Ferguson said.
When he succeeded Bell in 2008, Ferguson asked Wheat to serve as legal counsel for his office, a wide-ranging role that tackles everything from revising policies and procedures to reflect new laws, to representing the office in cases brought against it.
“During my first year, I asked her if she would work with me in the Clerk’s office for ‘a year or two.’ I am extremely fortunate that Ms. Wheat decided to stay with our office for 10 years,” Ferguson said.
From his own experience with Wheat, “I am certain that those who appear before her as a judge will be impressed with her knowledge of the law, passion for justice, and a kind but firm demeanor that is well-suited for the job,” Ferguson said.
In addition to adding to the ranks of the Circuit Court, the General Assembly also has elected two judges to succeed District Court jurists serving Arlington and Falls Church. Jason Rucker on March 16 will fill the seat of Judge Thomas Kelley, who retired in January, and Dan Lopez will succeed Judge Richard McCue in July. District Court judges serve for six-year terms.