The committee studying the alignment of Virginia’s judicial circuits and districts unveiled two proposals last night in Abingdon at the first of six hearings across the state.
One would create 27 circuits from the 31 existing circuits. The other would keep the current 31 circuits but create an overlay of 11 regions to manage the allocation of judges within the regions.
Hayden H. Horney, clerk of the Wythe County Circuit Court, was one of about 60 people – many of them judges, court clerks and prosecutors — who attended the hearing. He said “everyone was pleased with the regional concept.”
John Graham, Horney’s counterpart in Smyth County, said that was largely because it would avoid interrupting “just so many things that are tied into the court system and are long established.” He cited social service networks, regional jails and even the residences of judges as examples.
Horney noted that the judge who usually sits in Wytheville lives in Montgomery County. The two counties would be in separate circuits under both the committee’s proposal and the so-called Janis/Edwards plan that was the starting point for the realignment discussion.
Del. Bill Janis, R-Henrico, and Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, introduced legislation that would have required realignment and presented a proposal as to how it could be done. The legislators noted that the state has had substantial populations shifts since the judicial boundaries were created almost 40 years ago.
The plan would have created 19 judicial circuits and was put forth without any consultation with the Supreme Court of Virginia and state court administrators. The legislation died with the understanding that the court system would analyze the realignment of circuits and district and report to the House and Senate Courts of Justice committees in the fall.
Chief Justice Cynthia D. Kinser appointed a 22-member Judicial Boundary Realignment Study committee chaired by Loudoun County Circuit Judge Thomas Horne.
The committee said its 27-circuit plan “is based on caseloads, cases per judge, current judge residences, location of courthouses, travel times, current cultural, economic and other community ties, as well as input from Virginia judges and clerks of court and others.”
It said the regional plan “would operate to improve judicial administration across the state while focusing on judicial caseloads, workloads, and where in the region assistance is needed.”
If the goal is the more efficient allocation of judges, the regional plan makes more sense because it would not require court-related agencies and functions to undergo an ancillary reorganizations of their own, Graham said.
The alignment of the proposed circuits and the caseloads of the judges in the 27-circuit proposal reflect the difficulty in arriving at an equitable configuration.
The plan has sprawling circuits that encompass sparsely populated localities in Southside, Southwest and Central Virginia and along the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula. And the caseload for judges in four circuits would be more than 20 percent above the state average while the caseload for judges in four other circuits would be more than 20 percent below the average.
The next hearing is Monday at the Library Technology Center Auditorium
at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, 1651 East Parham Road in Henrico County.
The other hearings are set for:
Wednesday, at 7 p.m.
George Mason University – Fairfax Campus
4400 University Drive, Fairfax
Thursday, at 7 p.m.
The Forum (Building A, Room 101)
Tidewater Community College – Portsmouth Campus
120 Campus Drive, Portsmouth
Monday, July 18, at 6 p.m.
Robert E. Plecker Workforce Center Auditorium
Blue Ridge Community College
One College Lane, Weyers Cave
Thursday, July 21, at 6 p.m.
Temple Building, Oliver Hall (DCC Auditorium)
Danville Community College
1008 South Main St., Danville