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Courts coping, but need more judges, Kinser says

WILLIAMSBURG — The reduction in the ranks of Virginia’s judiciary continues, as was apparent May 13 when Chief Justice Cynthia D. Kinser welcomed five new judges to the bench and noted over a dozen retirements.

Kinser hailed the retirees and introduced the newest jurists just prior to giving her State of the Judiciary address to the 2014 Judicial Conference in Williamsburg. The Conference offers networking and continuing education for Virginia’s circuit court and appellate judges.

Virginia’s legislature and governor are still in a budget stalemate, but the judiciary “does not have a seat at the table,” Kinser said. As the head of the third branch of government, Kinser called on the executive and the legislators “to find common ground and to fully fund the judiciary.”

Kinser pointed to figures from the weighted-caseload study conducted last year by the National Center for State Courts, that produced “empirical data and objective research” showing that the existing number of authorized judges is inadequate to meet the demand of the current workload.

The implied judicial need exceeds the number of authorized judges by a total of 27, Kinser said. There are still 44 current and announced vacancies, she said. Based on the study, the General Assembly has authorized additional judges, but it’s still unclear how many positions will be funded.

Since the 2010 freeze on filling judgeships, the state’s judges have been “struggling” to decide cases in a timely and effective way, Kinser said. The court system continues to make heavy use of retired and recalled judges. During calendar year 2013, the state tallied 4,279 days for retired and recalled judges sitting in circuit courts, and 4,555 days for judges filling in in district courts. Substitute judges – lawyers taking a break from their own practices – also sit in district courts.

Based on a recommendation from the weighted-caseload study, the Supreme Court also obtained grant funding to study a more formal “senior judge” system for Virginia courts. The senior judge study, to be conducted by the NCSC, will look at methods of selection, designation, compensation, fiscal impact, and how to transition to a senior judge system. A report on the senior judge system is due to the legislature on Nov. 15.

Kinser also wants funding for salary increases for court support staff and to restart the Judicial Performance Evaluation Program, also authorized by this year’s General Assembly. With online administration of the JPE surveys, the program will cost less this time around, she said. Although interim reports for judges are confidential, final reports to the General Assembly will be a matter of public record. If the money comes through, evaluations will get underway this year for judges up for re-election in 2015.

The judiciary may be bracing for a wave of retirements. This year’s Judicial Conference offers a session on practical planning for judicial retirement as well as a session on the senior judge study for retired judges.

 

 

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