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Magistrate reform survives committee challenge

A proposal for a sweeping reorganization of the magistrate system barely cleared the House Courts of Justice Committee today on a 12-10 vote.

“Good luck on the floor, Lacey,” committee Chairman David B. Albo, R-Fairfax, told the bill’s sponsor, Lacey E. Putney after the vote.

Putney, I-Bedford, is carrying HB 903 at the request of Chief Justice Leroy Rountree Hassell Sr., who has made reform of the system a priority. The bill is largely the work of a study group that included judges at all levels of the court system, three chief magistrates, two prosecutors, a public defender and a criminal defense attorney, a representative from the attorney general’s office and several Supreme Court staff members.

Beth Turnbull, the chief magistrate in Norfolk and a member of the study group, said, “It will make us a more educated, a more professional and a more accountable system.”

The system would be based on regions rather than judicial districts, with seven regional managers reporting to a magistrate director in the Office of the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court. The regional managers would supervise chief magistrates who would have authority over teams of 14 to 18 magistrates.

Now, chief circuit judges are responsible for hiring and supervising magistrates, and inconsistency over that process is a major reason for the proposed reforms. The goal is for all magistrates to have college degrees and for all chief magistrates to be lawyers. The higher education standards would be phased in over time and training and technology would be greatly enhanced.

Much of the magistrates’ work, especially in rural areas, would be by teleconference.

But several members of the committee said they see the proposal as a top-down bureaucratic solution that would make it much less likely that someone familiar with the community in which he lives will perform magistrate functions.

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