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House, Senate panels differ on court redistricting

Senators and delegates appear to agree that the time is at hand to look at redistricting the state’s judicial circuits and districts, but the members of the House Courts of Justice Committee are more insistent about making it happen than their Senate counterparts.

This afternoon, the House Courts of Justice Committee reported House Bill 1990 to the full House with an amendment that it has to be reenacted before it can take effect on July 1, 2012.

The bill’s patron, Del. Bill Janis, R-Henrico, said that will be plenty of time to involve the Supreme Court of Virginia, its Office of the Executive Secretary and bar groups.

Anything less assertive is likely to delay or evade something that very much needs to be done, he said. The vote to report the bill was 12-6.

Yesterday, Sen. John S. Edwards, D-Roanoke, the patron of SB 1240, the Senate counterpart to Janis’ bill, decided to not even present his bill to the Senate Courts Committee’s civil subcommittee, which he chairs.

Instead, Edwards said he will ask Courts Committee Chairman Henry L. Marsh III to send a letter requesting that the Supreme Court study the matter and submit a report to a subcommittee of the courts committee by the fall. Edwards said he had discussed review of the redistricting proposal with new Chief Justice Cynthia D. Kinser, and “we welcome their input as to what changes should be made.”

At a House subcommittee meeting on Wednesday, Janis promised to give all the committee numbers the caseload breakdown on the proposed circuits and districts before the committee meeting this afternoon, and he shared it with Virginia Lawyers Weekly.

The numbers show that the caseloads of judges would be above the statewide average for 2009 in 13 of the 19 circuits he is proposing – down from the 31 the state has now.

No surprise there, because the proposal reflects a reduction of 20 judges from the roughly 400 the state had in circuit, juvenile and J&DR courts in 2009.

But some of the caseload jumps are substantial – 55 percent in the proposed 7th Circuit, which includes the Shenandoah Valley north of Rockbridge County; 39 percent in the 16th Circuit that includes Prince George Surry, Sussex, Southampton and Greensville counties; and 37 percent in 2nd Circuit, which contains the counties of Bland, Tazewell, Buchanan, Smyth and Wythe.

Expect judges and lawyers in those circuits to complain that the increased caseload is even worse than it looks because it doesn’t reflect the travel time for those relatively far-flung districts with fewer judges than localities – six judges for eight counties and four cities in the 7th Circuit, only two judges for five counties in the 16th Circuit and four judges for five localities in the 2nd Circuit.

The circuits and districts haven’t been changed since 1972, and Janis said population shifts have left some circuits with too many judges and others with too few.

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