Judicial crisis feared as delegates vote to cut judges
The 20th Circuit Court, which includes Loudoun, Rappahannock and Fauquier counties, currently has funding for four judges, though one seat remains vacant pending a replacement for retired Judge Thomas Horne. The General District Court also has four judges.
The bill, HB 606, proposed by Del. Jackson Miller (R-50th) originally was designed to adjust the number of judges statewide, following a multi-year caseload study conducted by the National Center for State Courts.
An earlier bill proposed by Del. Randy Minchew (R-10th), HB 142, focused specifically on the 20th Circuit Court judges, was absorbed into HB 606, a move Minchew supported.
“I'd like to see judges across the state funded because we have a judicial crisis in our commonwealth,” Minchew said.
After unanimously passing the Committee for the Courts of Justice, the bill hit a snag in the Committee on Appropriations, which froze the number of 20th Circuit Court judges at four and defunded the General District Court by one judge.
While the original bill called for the addition of 25 new judges, the revised version would cut three circuit court judges and 16 general district court judges.
Minchew explained that the courts committee rounded up on the recommended number of judges from the weighted caseload report. For example, for Loudoun, the recommended number of 4.7 Circuit Court judges was rounded to five. But, according to Minchew, the appropriations committee “arbitrarily said, 'if you don't have a .8, you round down'.”
While the recommendation for the 20th Circuit Court was 4.7 judges, the General District Court was believed to need 3.6 judges.
"That set up the ludicrous situation that we defund a judge in Loudoun,” Minchew said.
The revised bill passed handily in the House of Delegates, with 62 voting in favor and 36 in opposition, including Minchew and Del. David Ramadan (R-87th).
Other Loudoun delegates all voted in favor, though some, like Del. Tom Rust (R-86th) are hoping to revert the funding levels back during reconciliation.
And funding decisions aren't set in stone. On Feb. 10, the Senate passed SB 443, which would add the 16 judges overall.
Both bills have now switched houses and Minchew expects they will undergo a reconciliation process in early March.
While Minchew told the Loudoun County Bar Association not to panic, he is encouraging residents to write their delegates regarding the judge shortage.
As a practicing attorney, Minchew knows firsthand some of the struggles of the court.
He recalled a custody dispute recently brought to court that wasn't able to be scheduled until July. Rather than wait, the parents in question hired a judge pro tempore, similar to a rented judge, to hear the case, with each person paying the judge nearly $300 a day.
“If the wealth of the litigants is a determining factor in how fast you can get justice, you have a problem,” Minchew said.
He also noted that the state is increasingly relying on retired judges. The recently retired Judge Thomas Horne began subbing just one month after his retirement.
In 2013, Virginia's 177 retired judges heard nearly 9,000 hours of cases, all without the benefit of a clerk.
Minchew is confident the court issues will be resolved in the coming months.
"I'm optimistic that in the reconciliation process between the House and the Senate, we won't lose a judgeship, but we'll gain one,” he said.