Ruling in Case Involving Rival Chesapeake Regional Medical Center Shows Sentara’s Community Reach
Norfolk Circuit Judge Mary Jane Hall ruled in 2019 in favor of health care giant Sentara’s attempt to stop rival Chesapeake Regional Medical Center (CRMC) from starting an open-heart surgery unit. But she never recused herself, and did not even disclose that she previously represented Sentara.
The pro-Sentara ruling shows the reach of Sentara’s community influence as it expands and seeks an $11.5-billion merger with North Carolina’s Cone Health.
C&BP has been investigating powerful Sentara Healthcare since November 2020. To achieve the merger with Cone, the non-profit, tax-exempt Sentara hospital chain — with cash reserves of $6 billion — is angling to keep the profitable EVMS Medical Group, from which Sentara draws low-cost, highly skilled medical residents, as well as a profitable caseload stream. Sentara CEO Howard Kern also wants to offload the operating costs of EVMS’s medical school onto Virginia taxpayers by forcing EVMS to combine with Old Dominion University, a public institution.
Judge Hall and Sentara
A review of Virginia court records and public biographies of Hall show she represented Sentara in a long-running case that ended in 2000 over the company’s unsuccessful attempt to open a liver-transplant facility. Hall then worked for the Richmond law firm McCandlish, Kaine and Grant. Hall became a judge in 2009.
Judge Hall heard Sentara’s case in 2019 as it fought CRMC’s proposal to open a heart surgery unit at its hospital in Chesapeake. The battle was fought through a Certificate of Public Need (COPN) process, in which health care companies have to receive approval from the Virginia health commissioner’s office to start or change their facilities.
Sentara dominates the health care market in Hampton Roads. That’s due in part to its success in controlling the COPN process that controls the growth of health care in Virginia. In 2008, it received favorable COPN rulings that boosted Sentara’s efforts to dominate the Hampton Roads health care market.
The staff of COPN Planning District 20, which includes Hampton Roads, approved Chesapeake’s proposal for the heart surgery unit on Nov. 20, 2017.
Sentara immediately jumped into the case, filing a “good cause” petition to protest the decision for CRMC.
State Health Commissioner Levine Steps in for Sentara
Dr. Marissa Levine, the state’s health commissioner, then granted Sentara approval to petition the health board against Chesapeake’s application. A health board adjudication officer, Douglas Harris, heard their arguments on Dec. 7, 2017. Harris then granted Sentara what is called “good standing.”
Both sides presented their arguments before Harris on April 12, 2018. Harris recommended against CRMC, and new Health Commissioner M. Norman Oliver signed off on Harris’s recommendation on August 24, 2018.
Chesapeake fought Oliver’s decision in court. Sentara teamed up with Oliver to fight Chesapeake.
Judge Hall rejected CRMC’s arguments that Sentara should not have been allowed in the case on March 27, 2019.
Chesapeake appealed to the state appeals court. In October, a three-judge panel ruled against Chesapeake again.
Why Did Judge Hall Not Recuse?
Hall could have recused herself from the cases involving Sentara. After all, Virginia’s former health commissioner, Karen Remley, was a former Sentara executive when she took her new job in 2008. She recused herself from any decision involving Sentara’s COPN applications that year.
There is no record that Judge Hall offered to recuse herself, or even mentioned her previous relationship with Sentara.
The Virginia Canons of Judicial Conduct says this about judicial impartiality:
“(1) A judge shall disqualify himself or herself in a proceeding in which the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned, including but not limited to instances where:
“…(b) The judge served as a lawyer in the matter in controversy, or a lawyer with whom the judge previously practiced law served during such association as a lawyer concerning the matter, or the judge has been a material witness concerning it.”
The Virginia State Bar gave Judge Hall a 9-7 “qualified” recommendation in 2014 for a seat on the Virginia Supreme Court. Most of the other applications had unanimous approval or moved with 15-1 votes. Before Hall became a judge, she was an attorney with the firm Kaufman & Canoles, whose partners have multiple connections with Sentara and its non-profit foundation.
We have reached out to Judge Hall for comment.
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Ray Locker is enterprise and investigative editor of Checks and Balances Project, an investigative watchdog blog holding government officials, lobbyists, and corporate management accountable to the public. Funding for C&BP is provided by Renew American Prosperity and individual donors.