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Keenan: Freedom crucial to judiciary

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Barbara M. Keenan







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Judges cannot be beholden, she tells university audience

By J.R. Williams -- jrwilliams@nvdaily.com

WINCHESTER -- Judge Barbara M. Keenan, of the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, is used to breaking barriers.

She was the first female general district court judge in Virginia, the first woman to be elected to the Court of Appeals of Virginia and only the second to serve on the state Supreme Court.

All jobs she called a "fantastic, continuing learning experience."

"The cases are limitless," she said.

Keenan spoke at Shenandoah University on Wednesday as part of the annual J. Sloan Kuykendall Distinguished Legal Lecture series, which honors the late city attorney of that name and is sponsored by the Center for Public Service and Scholarship.

Citing her "long and distinguished record of service on the bench," President Obama appointed Keenan to the Fourth Circuit in September 2009.

In introductory remarks, local Circuit Court Judge John E. Wetsel Jr. -- who served with Keenan on the Commission on Virginia Courts in the 21st Century and the Judicial Performance Evaluation Task Force -- called her a "veritable saint of the law."

"It's fortunate for the fourth circuit that Judge Keenan has seen in many instances, firsthand, the types of cases of which she's now asked to rule and review as an appellate judge," he said.

Keenan said her court -- which covers Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and South Carolina -- is gearing up for some high-profile cases, not the least of which are challenges to the new federal health-care legislation.

But the message she had for local dignitaries and students Wednesday night was one of judicial independence. Virginia is one of the few states whose judges are appointed by the legislature. Elsewhere, she said, corruption can creep in with corporate influence during elections.

"This is becoming a really big issue in this country today," she said. "With the judiciary, the judges need to be able to make decisions based on the law and not be subject [to] whether people like one thing that you did. It's a really serious problem."

As an example, she cited the 2009 U.S. Supreme Court case, Caperton vs. Massey Coal Co., in which a state Supreme Court candidate benefited from $3 million a company executive spent for ads to attack his opponent. After the candidate was elected, he subsequently cast a swing vote in favor of Massey.

"It is so hard, in terms of public perception, for the public to believe that judges who have received $50,000 from a corporation or from a law firm are not going to at least be a little bit affected ... [when] their continuation in office, their financial support, has been from people who are asking to decide their case in their favor."

Keenan said campaigns that force judges to reveal their personal feelings on sensitive issues undermine the position's responsibility.

"Judges are being asked to pre-decide cases ... or at least state opinions, and that's really the antithesis of what judging is about," she said.

Shenandoah freshmen Keaton Whitehurst and Heather Taylor, both 19, are pursuing career fields outside of law: Whitehurst is studying vocal performance and Taylor is exploring respiratory care. But the pair called the lecture informative and said they enjoyed Keenan's later uplifting message to students to pursue their goals.

"I thought it was really interesting," Whitehurst said. "I liked how she said to reach for the stars, basically, and to not worry about just being the norm. She's had a great career, and I wish her the best."View image




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