After long delay, Virginia lawmakers advance nominees for powerful regulatory jobs

Posted at 6:20 AM, Jan 24, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-24 08:15:30-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia lawmakers nominated experienced attorneys on Tuesday to fill two long-standing vacancies on the state’s powerful regulatory panel that oversees interests ranging from utilities to insurers.

The openings on the three-judge State Corporation Commission have gone unfilled, in one case for nearly two years, due to political gridlock. But with Democrats in charge of both General Assembly chambers after elections last November, the majority party is free to advance its own nominees.

House and Senate committees voted after a brief joint hearing to approve Kelsey Bagot and Samuel Towell for the vacancies. No one voiced opposition to the appointments, which still must be approved by both full chambers.

Towell currently serves as an in-house attorney for meat producer Smithfield Foods and previously worked in the state Office of the Attorney General as deputy attorney general for civil litigation.

The State Corporation Commission, or SCC, is an independent state agency with a staff of hundreds. It has a purview that includes the regulation of utilities, insurance, state-chartered financial institutions, railroads, business filings and other matters. The commissioners oversee the agency’s work.

The decisions of the panel typically generate the most news in electric utility cases.

The first of the current openings on the commission arose in early 2022, when the House of Delegates, then controlled by Republicans, effectively removed a nominee of former Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam. The 2022 session and a special session came and went without an agreement on a replacement for Angela Navarro, who had previously worked as an environmental attorney and in Northam’s administration.

Then another commissioner, Judith Jagdmann, resigned before the start of the 2023 session. She told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that she thought her decision would help lawmakers agree on filling the vacancies — presumably with the then-GOP-controlled House of Delegates getting one pick and Senate Democrats getting another.

That did not come to pass. Jehmal T. Hudson, an appointee of Northam, is currently the sole judge.

The debate over the vacancies has transpired mostly behind closed doors, with minimal public discussion.

This year’s pool of applicants was winnowed down in private meetings, and the nominees’ names were made public shortly before Tuesday’s meeting. The brief hearing featured just a few questions of Bagot about her work at NextEra from one Republican lawmaker.

The nominations of Bagot and Towell were welcomed by environmental advocates, whose policy goals generally align with Democrats’ aims.

Walton Shepherd, a senior attorney and the Virginia state director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said Bagot and Towell would bring “stability and expertise” to the bench. Michael Town, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation voters, said he thought the two would “serve Virginians well” in the new roles.

Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin “looks forward to the State Corporation Commission operating at its full capacity,” spokesman Christian Martinez said in a statement.

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