Lawmakers say new state budget is bad news for Loudoun County judiciary
State Del. Randy Minchew (R-10th), a Leesburg-based attorney, broke what he called the “ill-conceived and imprudent” decision to the Loudoun Bar Association Thursday.
Following local Judge Burke F. McCahill's retirement last month, the 20th Judicial Circuit, of which Loudoun is a part, has four working judges. Three of those – the Hons. Doug Fleming, Jeanette Irby and Stephen Sincavage – serve mostly in Loudoun, while the fourth, Chief Judge Jeffrey Parker, works almost exclusively in Fauquier and Rappahannock Counties.
Given Loudoun's rapid population growth – from 170,000 people in 2000 to an estimated 374,000 in 2016 – the county's court docket continues to be swamped with new cases.
Funding for a fourth Loudoun judge was approved in the latest House version of the budget, but not in the Senate's proposal. The funding was stripped in the final reconciled budget, which is expected to be finalized Saturday morning.
“As a result of this ill-conceived and imprudent action, the third most-populous county in Virginia has lost 25 percent of its judicial workforce and will now have only three resident Circuit Court judges to handle a complex and growing docket,” Minchew noted in his letter to Loudoun bar members. “I fear that this reduction in Loudoun judicial force will most certainly lead to a postponement of the proposed establishment of a remedial drug court in Loudoun County given the judicial time commitments required to run such a program.”
A fourth judge in Loudoun had been so expected that a nominee, Leesburg attorney Alex Levay, already underwent the interview and panel process in Richmond.
Minchew praised state Sen. Jennifer Wexton (D-33rd), also a Leesburg lawyer, for offering a floor amendment to fund the fourth judge, although her proposal was shot down.
“Senator Wexton did all she could, including having the guts to file a floor amendment to [budget bill] SB 900,” Minchew wrote. “Generally speaking, a floor amendment to the budget approved by the Senate Finance Committee or the House Appropriations Committee is as welcome as is a comment to young parents that their baby has a wart on its face.”
Del. Tag Greason (R-32nd), of Lansdowne, is among the House and Senate budget conferees who hash out the details of a final state spending plan. Greason said he was disappointed in the decision regarding the judge, but he wasn't willing to go so far as to not sign the final budget.
Greason described the process as the push-and-pull of politics and budget negotiations. At the end of the day, he said, Loudoun's need was not affirmed by a caseload study and metrics that dictates the number of judges for the state's circuits.
Greason said he “felt like like mathematically we did everything we could.”
The “turn-key” cost for Loudoun Circuit Court judge is about $288,800, according to Minchew.
Both Greason and Minchew said they hope to secure funding for a fourth Loudoun Circuit Court Judge in next year's biennial budget.
“I am a lawyer, former president of the Loudoun County Bar Association, former Virginia Supreme Court law clerk, and one who has been working on rule of law matters for years,” Minchew said. “As such, I am probably closer to these issues and probably take greater umbrage than most to actions that negatively impact the administration of justice or disparage our judiciary.”
The Loudoun Board of Supervisors voted Thursday to have Chairwoman Phyllis Randall (D-At Large) draft a letter to Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) requesting he pursue “any available avenues” to restore funding for the fourth Loudoun Circuit Court judge.
“Truthfully, we actually need two judges in Loudoun County right now, that’s how big the caseloads are,” Randall said. “For them to take away one of our Circuit Court judges is just untenable and, quite frankly, I also think if we had a judge sitting in that seat they wouldn’t have removed a judge from the post.”
Minchew also expressed the latter sentiment.
"If I had any suspicion that this Loudoun Circuit Court judicial defunding might occur, I would have asked Judge McCahill to hold off on his retirement until after the General Assembly adjourned its 2017 Session so that a gubernatorial recess appointment could occur," Minchew wrote. "I do not think that the Senate Budget conference committee members would have chosen to defund a Loudoun Circuit Court judgeship that was filled by a working judge."
-Staff Writer Sydney Kashiwagi contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier version of the story incorrectly stated Judge Thomas Horne retired in January. It was Judge Burke F. McCahill who retired this year, not Horne.
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