By Randy Arrington
LURAY, May 31 — With his hand laid upon a Bible his late mother once gave him, the Honorable Kenneth L. Alger II became the newest member of the bench in the 26th Judicial District during his investiture proceedings at the Page County Courthouse on Tuesday.
Nearly 150 crammed into the circuit courtroom to witness the special session of Page County Circuit Court presided over by Judge Clark Ritchie. Every possible seat was used (late arrivals stood along the walls and in the open doorway), with the honoree’s family in the jury box, members of the Page County Bar Association at the defendant’s table, Page County’s constitutional officers and Luray’s mayor seated in front of the six judges seated at the bench…and Alger, taking his place at the prosecutor’s table as he has done for more than a decade, only this time joined by his wife Elisabeth — his last act as Page County’s Commonwealth’s Attorney.
Judge Ritchie began the special session noting the notables in the room — welcoming fellow judges, commonwealth’s attorneys, defense lawyers, state legislators, constitutional officers, county and town officials, and others. He then turned to the jury box to welcome the honoree’s family.
“Hello,” he said.
“Hello,” replied Alger’s 2-year-old daughter from the floor below. She found the proceedings to be both fascinating and an opportunity to explore the “castle”, where her daddy has protected the rule of law that he believes in so deeply.
Judge Ritchie spoke of knowing Alger from the “bar to the bench” and touted his confidence in the new judge’s belief in, and capacity for, “fair and impartial administration of justice.”
Page County Treasurer Penny Gray gave the invocation, and Page County Clerk of the Circuit Court Grayson Markowitz lead everyone in the pledge. Former Assistant Commonwealth Attorney Bryan Cave — who was sworn-in as Page County’s new commonwealth’s attorney at 8:30 a.m. the next morning — offered a welcome and introduction of the honoree.
“Hard work is something he is no stranger to,” Cave said of Alger. He told stories of a long friendship dating back to their days at the University of Virginia. Cave referenced his friend’s many nicknames through the years, and said, “After today, I’ll simply call him ‘Your Honor'”.
Virginia Code dictated Cave’s swearing-in Wednesday morning as Page County’s top prosecutor until a special election is held this November to fill the remainder of Alger’s term as commonwealth’s attorney, which runs through Dec. 31, 2023. Another election for commonwealth’s attorney will be held in November 2023 for the next four-year term, which would run through Dec. 31, 2027. Cave announced his candidacy to appear on the November ballot at the Page County Republican Committee’s Lincoln Day Dinner on April 22.
Virginia Speaker of the House Todd Gilbert (R-Woodstock) took to the podium next, along with Virginia Senator Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg).
“This is a little intimidating, and I don’t get intimidated easy,” Speaker Gilbert said, referencing the six judges sitting in front of him. Before becoming a legislator, Gilbert practiced law and served as a prosecutor in Shenandoah County, where Alger later served as assistant commonwealth’s attorney for six years under Albert Mitchell.
“You have big shoes to fill,” Speaker Gilbert said to Alger — referencing Judge Dale Houff, who officially retired May 1 after more than two decades on the bench.
“Thank you for your service,” Gilbert said to Houff. “It is good to know that there is someone capable of filling your shoes and carrying on a legacy for Page County.”
Houff was the last General District Court judge appointed to the bench who resided in Page County back in 2001. Judge Josh Robinson, who was appointed to the circuit court in the 1970s, was born in Page County in June 1923. Alger is believed to be only the second Page County native to receive a judgeship.
In March, both houses of the General Assembly confirmed the nominations of five judges submitted by the legislative delegation of the 26th Judicial Circuit to fill vacancies within the region. Among those confirmations was Alger, who was appointed as a General District Court judge.
Alger, along with 40-plus other judicial hopefuls, submitted resumes for the General District Court seat in January. The legislative delegation from the seven-county area in the northern Shenandoah Valley then selected nominations from the pool of applicants. In addition to Gilbert and Obenshain, the delegation includes Senator Emmett Hanger, Senator Jill Vogel, Delegate Michael Webert, Delegate Bill Wiley, Delegate Dave LaRock, Delegate Wendy Gooditis, Delegate Rob Bell, Delegate Tony Wilt, and Delegate Chris Runion.
“If this judgeship had been elected, I have no doubt in my mind that Ken Alger would have been overwhelmingly elected,” Senator Obenshain said during Tuesday’s investiture, noting the high volume of emails he received in support of Alger’s confirmation. “It is clear evidence of how members of his community feel that strongly about Ken and have that much confidence in him and his ability to do this job.
“It’s important for each community to have a judge,” Obenshain continued. “Judge Houff has reflected the values of this community for a long time, and I have no doubt that Judge Alger will carry on those ideals.”
Speaker Gilbert and Senator Obenshain presented Alger with a framed copy of the actual commission passed by the General Assembly. The Page County Bar Association followed with the adoption and presentation of a “resolution of welcome.” Local attorney Michael Helm read the resolution, which noted Alger’s “fair use and dedication to the law and to the community and citizens alike.” Helm acknowledged Alger’s many acts of community service among various organizations and labeled him “one of the most selfless and hardworking citizens of Page County.”
After taking his oath on the Bible that his mother once gave him, the Honorable Kenneth L. Alger II put on his robe and joined the six judges sitting at the bench.
“I am very excited to see this happen,” Judge Ritchie said, “and I wish you nothing but the best Judge Alger.”
Judge Houff took a moment to address the group for fear that “someone would think I should and then I didn’t.” The longtime General District Court judge recalled that now-Speaker Gilbert was one of the first attorneys to appear in front of him when he first sat on the bench. He emphasized the pressure on judges due to high case loads in backed up courts.
“We have some days as many as 200 to 300 cases…with 125 to 150 appearing,” Houff said. “So, at the end of the day, you are going to have 150 people think you are wrong.”
The recently retired judge offered a few pieces of advice for the new judge, including an emphasis on working well with his court clerks and keep them happy.
“You’ve heard the expression ‘happy wife, happy life'” Houff said, “well, happy clerk, happy work.”
Judge Alger closed out the hour-long proceedings by thanking a long list of mentors, colleagues, friends and family. He mentioned that he had appeared in front of all of the judges present in the room, including 3,500 hours in front of Judge Ritchie.
“We agreed 95 percent of the time, which equals…I did the math…about 200 hours that I did not agree,” Alger said.
He acknowledged his predecessor, Judge Houff, as a “model [general district court] judge” and stated that he would be operating under the M.O. of WWJHD — what would Judge Houff do?
Alger voiced his thanks to the voters of Page County and the support he’s received while in public office, noting that he’s leaving the office of commonwealth’s attorney in “good hands.” He voiced support of the team conducting the new drug court, which the new judge says is “changing people’s lives.”
“I believe in the rule of law, and I promise to follow the rule of law,” Alger told the packed courtroom. “People remember how you make them feel…and I’ve always tried to treat everyone fairly and with dignity, and I will continue to do that.”