One might say Joel Branscom is in hyper-drive as he works through what will be his final full week as Botetourt County’s Commonwealth’s Attorney.
Branscom’s new job starts next Thursday, Feb. 1 when he’ll become a 25th District Circuit Court judge, filling the vacancy created when Bo Trumbo retired at the end of the year.
Branscom was pretty sure he would be the circuit’s next judge since he was the only candidate interviewed in early December for the position by both the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates committees that recommend appointments.
Still, there was no certainty until last Tuesday, Jan. 16 when the Senate and House both confirmed the appointment in resolutions that also dealt with other circuit, district and juvenile and domestic relations courts appointments and reappointments.
The 58-year-old Branscom has served as Botetourt’s Commonwealth’s Attorney since 1994 when he took the seat following the 1993 election He was appointed to an eight-year term on the circuit bench.
Branscom confessed that moving from a familiar position as a prosecuting attorney to the bench is a bit daunting, but he feels ready for the move.
He won’t be sitting for criminal cases in Botetourt for a while— essentially until the cases his current office is prosecuting are cleared. But that should change in about a year as those cases work their way through the court.
He can hear civil cases here, but he’ll be assigned to other jurisdictions in the circuit for criminal trials; except in Alleghany County where his wife works as an attorney in that county’s Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office.
When asked why he was interested in serving as judge, he responded, “I’ve been asking myself that a lot. For years, I thought I’d rather be a player than a referee,” Branscom said. “But it’s a way to continue serving this community in a different form. It’s good to breathe new blood in the Commonwealth’s Attorney office.
I’ve loved this so much,” he said of serving as the county’s top prosecutor. “It’s been my life, so I do have mixed emotions, but it’s probably what I should do.”
Branscom added, “Part of the great thing about this job has been the judges I had to work with.” Those have included Circuit Court Judges George Honts and Turmbo; General District Judges Kerry Campbell and Bill Cleavland, and Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court Judge Paul Tucker.
Branscom has been very involved in state Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys (VACA).
One of the first things Branscom did when elected Commonwealth’s Attorney was attend a VACA executive conference and new officer training. Since Bo Trumbo lived in Fincastle and was in the General Assembly, Branscom was appointed to the organization’s Legislative Committee. He was later named chair of that committee and has served as the organization’s president. He’s also been involved in much of the legislation that Commonwealth’s Attorneys developed, supported, recommended or opposed over the years.
Branscom has also been involved with the Commonwealth’s Attorneys’ Services Council, a state agency that provides training, education and services for Virginia’s prosecutors.
Branscom is meeting with other judges in the district this week.
The new job comes with some training, but not right away. Because of time of Trumbo’s retirement and his appointment, there won’t be judge’s school before Branscom starts on the bench next week. But he added, “The great thing I’ve found, all the judges in this circuit and other circuits have been calling me offering lots of advice. And there are books on what you do,” Branscom said.
Branscom joined Don Caldwell in the City of Roanoke’s Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office right out of law school. He served there 10.5 years before being elected as Botetourt’s Commonwealth’s Attorney.
His appointment as judge brings the circuit up to the current number of judges it should have, but a General Assembly study done last year suggests the circuit needs another circuit court judge. It also needs another judge in Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, the study recommended. Part of that is because the circuit is so big. It includes Botetourt, Craig, Alleghany, Rockbridge, Bath, Highland and Augusta Counties and the Cities of Buena Vista, Covington, Lexington, Staunton and Waynesboro.
By state code, Branscom’s current position will be filled by his senior assistant, John Alexander (see related article). Alexander will serve until the end of this year when a special election in November will be used to fill the remaining year of Branscom’s term, which ends December 31, 2019.