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When Bedford Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court Judge Philip Wallace officially retires on June 30, Louis Harrison, a Bedford attorney is scheduled to fill that bench the next day.
Harrison had actually been elected by the House of Delegates during this year’s General Assembly, but this was one of 11 judicial vacancies that the Senate did not act on before the session’s end. The five judges of the 24th Circuit Court, which includes Bedford County, unanimously entered an order this month appointing Harrison to the position on an interim basis. Harrison, who has accepted the appointment, will fill the position until the General Assembly convenes in January.
Delegate Lacey Putney was one of the delegates who voted for Harrison.
“I did what I thought was reasonable based on support from the Bedford Bar,” said Putney.
The Bedford Bar Association endorsed Harrison.
“They [the Senate] should have acted on these judges before the deadline,” added Putney.
Putney does not believe that Harrison’s action providing legal advice to the National D-Day Memorial Foundation in its early years is significant.
Shortly after the D-Day Memorial was dedicated in 2001, problems surfaced with the way Richard Burrow, then the foundation’s director, had provided matches for state funds. Burrow was prosecuted twice in two different federal courts on fraud charges. Both trials resulted in hung juries. During the first trial, held in Lynchburg, former Del. Dick Cranwell said that the state has been “loosey-goosy” about what constitutes a valid match and that it was not illegal to use a bank loan for that purpose.
Prior to the second trial, federal prosecutors released a statement from Harrison claiming that Burrow acted illegally. Harrison had entered into a plea agreement with federal prosecutors in which he would not be charged with fraud if he testified against Burrow.
The U. S. attorney who headed the Burrow prosecution was John Brownlee, who is currently seeking the Republican nomination for Virginia Attorney General. Putney believes that Brownlee wanted badly to convict Burrow for the sake of publicity.
“I know and all I can hear is that Brownlee was foot-stomping anxious to get that conviction,” Putney said.
The Virginia Bar Association investigated Harrison after his plea and censured him. Putney said that this censure was for giving legal advice that went out of his area of expertise and not turning it over to another attorney.
Steve Grant is a Bedford attorney who serves on the Virginia Bar Association’s disciplinary committee for the district that covers Central and Southside Virginia. The Bar Association has a wide range of sanctions that it can take against an attorney and Grant said that there is only one lower level of sanction than the censure Harrison received.
“I am comfortable that he will be an excellent judge,” said Grant. “I have no concerns about his performance in that regard.”
Grant said that he has known Harrison for 20 years. He said that Harrison has conducted seminars for attorneys on his area of expertise, juvenile and domestic relations.
“It’s hard to think of anybody who is more qualified to be a juvenile and domestic relations judge,” said Grant.
Carter Garrett, another Bedford attorney noted that federal prosecutors failed twice to prove criminal intent when they tried Burrow on fraud charges. He noted that Burrow was the target of their investigation and their failure to convict him illustrates what a low level action Harrison’s censure was.
“I think he was probably treated unfairly in the way the U. S. attorney approached it,” Garrett commented.
He believes Harrison provided legal advice to the National D-Day Memorial Foundation with honest intentions and missed some details because he went out of his area of expertise, adding the Virginia Bar Association censure will have no effect on his performance as a judge. He added that reprimands like the one Harrison received are supposed to be private, but his somehow went public. According to Garrett, reprimands of this sort normally don't do that.
“That’s just a hiccup in Louis’ carrer,” Garrett asserted.
Garrett is a lifelong Bedford area resident. His father, Harry Garrett, was commonwealth’s attorney from 1968 until 1980, a period when Bedford County had a part-time commonwealth’s attorney. When that office went to full time, Harry Garrett resigned and James Updike was elected as the county’s first full-time commonwealth’s attorney.
Harrison has served as a substitute judge in Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.
“I’ve had the pleasure to practice in front of him many times when he was a substitute judge,” Carter Garrett commented.
In Garrett’s opinion, there are divorce lawyers and family lawyers. The former come close to the TV caricature of lawyers.
“Louis was not one of those,” said Garrett. “He practices with a sense of family. That’s why I consider him a family lawyer, not a divorce lawyer. I believe he will bring that sense of family to the J and D bench.”
Garrett said that the Bedford Bar Association considered three attorneys. In addition to Harrison — Linda Willis and Carey Payne threw their hats in the ring as well.
“I thought all of our candidates were strong,” said Garrett. “I tell you, we couldn’t go wrong with these three.”
Willis, like Harrison, has served as a substitute judge in Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.
“I am very pleased with the selection of Louis,” Garrett said, stating that Harrison had the strongest marks of the three.
“I don’t think he [Harrison] did anything wrong,” commented Drew Davis, another Bedford attorney.
Davis said that Harrison derived no benefit from his work for the D-Day Memorial Foundation. The problem was that Harrison went outside his area of expertise.
“It’s like me doing corporate work,” said Davis. “I don’t do corporate work at all.”
“Louis is a good person,” Davis commented. “The Bar thought so.”
Davis said that he has known Harrison for 20 years and has had cases with him, and cases against him. He has also observed Harrison as a substitute judge and believes he is the best qualified to be on that bench.
Harrison said that he sought the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Bench because it provides the opportunity to do a lot of good. He’s had opportunities to observe that.
The emphasis of his law practice has been on domestic cases. In addition to serving as a substitute judge in the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, he also worked with Judge Wallace on the state best practices committee. Harrison said that Judge Wallace’s court was one of the original best practices courts in Virginia. According to Harrison, Bedford has initiated more changes that have been adopted statewide than any other court in Virginia.
“He’s been quite an innovator, so he has big shoes to fill,” said Harrison.
Harrison said that, when he first got here 20 years ago, the way the court handled foster cases was rather sloppy. He said Judge Wallace made improvements and, in 2000, was named judge of the year for foster care.
Harrison said he has worked closely with Judge Wallace on that issue.
“He recruited me 10 years ago,” Harrison said.
Commenting on the 11 judges that the Senate did not act on this year, Harrison said that the Senate made a wise decision by choosing to take a closer look rather than rushing to make a decision. He also noted that these legislators had a lot of work to do this year.
“They had a lot on their plate,” he commented.
“I made it through the House,” he added.
His work for the D-Day Memorial Foundation is in the past and he wants to keep it there.
“This has been investigated and, in the end, I had taken something too far out of my area,” he said. “They felt I should have turned it over to an expert in the field.”
Why did he do it?
“I had wanted to help them out,” Harrison said. “Almost everything I did was free. Everyone in Bedford was working on D-Day for free. I was just happy to be like everyone in Bedford and give something to that project.”
“When you talk with those people [the D-Day veterans], you feel like you ought to do something. If they got shot at, the least I can do is some free work.”
Harrison believes that the Senate will confirm him in January. He said the fact that the five judges of the 24th Circuit Court were unanimous in their decision to appoint him as interim judge is a real vote of confidence in him.
A Blacksburg native, Harrison got his undergraduate degree in political science from Virginia Tech.
“I walked to college from my house,” he said. “My mom worked at the ticket office and I don’t think I missed a home game in 17 years.”
“And, they were horrible back then,” he added.
His law degree is from the University of Richmond.