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Judge with local ties calls a cliffhanger / December 21, 2017

A Newport News judge with local ties played a starring role Wednesday in Virginia’s ongoing drama to determine which party will control the lower house of the General Assembly.

On Tuesday, the partisan makeup of the House of Delegates appeared to shift from a 51-49 Republican majority to an even 50-50 split between Democrats and Republicans, based on the outcome of a recount in 94th House District in Newport News. There, the GOP incumbent, Del. David Yancey, came away on Election Day with a 10-vote lead over Democratic challenger Shelly Simonds.

By the end of Tuesday recount, Simonds managed to gain a one-vote lead over Yancey, a reversal that appeared to put Democrats on even footing in the House and set the stage for a rare power-sharing arrangement between the parties.

That’s how matters stood Tuesday. Then came Wednesday, when a three-member panel of circuit judges was asked to certify the recount results.

The judges’ verdict: the counters overlooked one ballot cast for Yancey, thus rendering the race a tie: with 11,608 votes each for Yancey and Simonds. Delivering the verdict was Circuit Judge Bryant L. Sugg, son of late Halifax County General District Judge Irwin Douglas Sugg.

“The court declares there is no winner in this election,” said Sugg, speaking to the assembled gathering after the judges deliberated for two hours.

The ballot in question contained marks for both candidates, but the judges determined that the voter made another mark to cross out Simonds’ name, a clear signal the person intended to vote for Yancey.

The ruling, coming one day after Democrats appeared to thwart a GOP House majority, is likely the most high-profile episode of the younger Judge Sugg’s career. He was sworn in as a circuit judge in 2015, after following directly in his father’s footsteps to become a general district judge in Newport News in 2003.

At the time of his swearing-in two years ago, Sugg’s sister, Judy Scott, spoke of how their father would have been pleased: “It’s wonderful to see the progress that he’s made … and knowing how proud my father would be to witness this wonderful occasion,” she said, according to a report at the time published by the Daily Press.

The judges’ ruling in the 94th District House of Delegates is not likely to be the last word on the makeup of the General Assembly. Democrats are contesting the outcome of another close race, in Fredericksburg’s 28th District, where the margin of victory for the Republican candidate was 82 votes — and more than 100 residents were given the wrong ballot for voting in a cross-town House race.

Also, Virginia Democrats indicated Wednesday that they may contest the judges’ ruling in the 94th District, considered their best immediate hope of ending 17 years of Republican control of the House of Delegates.

“Today’s decision by the court was wrong, and Delegate-elect Shelly Simonds should have been certified the winner. We are currently assessing all legal options before us as we fight for a just result,” said Mark Ellis, an attorney for the House Democratic caucus, in a prepared statement.

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