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Kinser: Don’t tinker with Rules of Evidence

Chief justice: Proposal for evidence code a unified package

ROANOKE–Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Cynthia D. Kinser urged the General Assembly to vote thumbs-up or down on the court’s newly endorsed Rules of Evidence without any tweaking of individual rules.

The court presented the rules to the Virginia Code Commission earlier this month, and in remarks to the Roanoke Bar Association Tuesday, Kinser said the legislature should take up the proposed evidence rules as a unified package.

“The worst possible thing that could happen is to have individual members of the General Assembly trying to tinker with individual rules that they don’t like for whatever reason,” she said.

Kinser said the court’s proposed evidence code emerged from a day-and-a-half meeting of the high court. Each justice wanted to make sure the proposed rules made no changes in the law of evidence in Virginia, Kinser said. The court also wanted to make sure the rules used “neutral language” without favor for one side or the other in either a civil or criminal context.

The Code Commission is expected to offer enabling legislation to create a statutory framework for a Virginia Rules of Evidence in the 2012 Assembly session.

Despite years of study, proposals for an official compendium of evidence rules languished at the Supreme Court. “For a lot of different reasons … we just didn’t act on them,” Kinser said. She said Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, “jumpstarted” the process by proposing legislation this year to enact a code of evidence.

Judicial boundaries

The special committee Kinser appointed to study Virginia’s judicial circuits and districts will present its report shortly. But anticipating the panel’s final product, Kinser endorsed the idea of more study before any changes to the map are made. “We need more time. I think that’s going to be the bottom line in the report,” she said.

Kinser, who viewed the legislative initiative to redraw judicial boundaries as a means of reducing the number of judges, cautioned against quick fixes.

“I’d be the first to agree it’s the first responsibility of the judiciary to always utilize its resources effectively and efficiently, but in doing so to never, ever do anything that would impede access to justice and the quality of justice and the administration of justice. That has to be the overriding concern, always,” Kinser said.

Kinser said the National Center for State Courts is available to do a weighted case study of Virginia courts to accurately compare their caseloads.

The most important thing to come out of this year’s boundaries study, Kinser said, is the conclusion that “we need that kind of study in Virginia before we make any real attempt to redraw the lines without affecting a lot of communities of interest.”

Kinser concluded with a plea for attorney advocacy on behalf of state courts, both for financial support and government autonomy.

“We should all work hard to make sure that not only Virginia’s judiciary but the judiciary of every state remains a separate and equal branch of government.”

Kinser said the budget for the Virginia judiciary amounts to less than 1 percent of the total state budget. She noted the appropriations for the courts were reduced by more than $11 million in the current biennium, while other states’ courts were hit even harder.

“The lack of funding affects access to justice,” Kinser said. “The underfunding has created a real crisis among the state courts and a real problem in access to justice.”

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