The General Assembly approved this year the structure for a system that should result in better trained and managed magistrates.
That structure represents a substantial financial commitment, especially in a year with a budget shortfall. It will require $3.6 million for 35 positions to be created in the next fiscal year and $4.3 million in fiscal 2010 when an additional 11 positions will come on board.
But the legislature balked at the cost of what proponents of the plan say is essential for attracting the better-educated magistrates they see as necessary to maintain public confidence in the system.
The salary range for full-time magistrates now is $34,242 to $54,588, with chief magistrates making $39,678 to $63,237. The starting salary proposed for new magistrates would have been $48,440, and magistrates licensed to practice law would have been paid at least $63,036.
Chief magistrates who are not lawyers would have started at $69,765, and those with law licenses would have been paid $77,517.
“That’s not going to go over very well” with the magistrates, said Esther Windmueller, a Richmond criminal defense attorney who was a member of the study group that recommended the changes.
“Part of what we were trying to do was move to a system where magistrates could handle more things, such as traffic infractions,” she said.
Still, “acceptance of the structure will be an improvement” even if “it may not have the long-term effect that was a goal,” she said. “It’s an important job, and when that job is not done well, people suffer.”
Magistrates make the first call on probable cause for arrest, whether a defendant should be freed or sent to jail after he is arrested, and whether someone should be detained because of mental health issues. They also decide whether to issue search warrants or emergency protective orders.
Although the new law grandfathers magistrates in the system now, magistrates hired after July 1 will have to have a bachelor’s degree and chief magistrates will have to be licensed to practice law.
Since 1995, new magistrates have been required to have a bachelor’s degree or “equivalent experience,” but between those magistrates who were grandfathered by that provision and those with “equivalent experience” who have been hired since, a substantial number of magistrates do not have college degrees.
“We have a lot of great magistrates out there,” said Karl R. Hade, executive secretary of the Supreme Court of Virginia, “but the goal is to improve their education and make it a better system.”
Much of that improved education would occur after the magistrates are hired. The probationary period for on-the-job training will increase from six months to nine months and the mandatory training will jump from four days to four weeks. There also will be more emphasis on continuing legal education.
Higher standards are important, Hade said, because many state residents get their first impression of the judicial system from a magistrate.
Under the restructuring, each judicial district will continue to have a chief magistrate, but he or she will be selected by the office of the executive secretary rather than by the chief judge of a circuit. The new law still requires consultation with the chief judge by Hade’s office before magistrates are hired.
The judicial districts will be divided among eight regions with a regional supervisor who will report to a magistrate system coordinator in the office of the executive secretary.
A magistrate training coordinator also will be hired to develop and supervise the enhanced training for the system.
A key component of the system will be the development of a standard set of procedures and guidelines for magistrates to provide uniform treatment across the state for those who appear before them. An analysis of the system by a magistrate study group chaired by Virginia Circuit Judge Thomas S. Shadrick found substantial variations in magistrates’ offices across the state.
Another important element of the restructuring is the elimination of part-time magistrates and especially part-time, on-call magistrates who typically work only a few hours a week around their primary employment.
The goal is for all magistrates to be full-time employees with no potential conflict between other jobs and their work as magistrates.
The circumstances that created the need for such part-time employees – areas with small populations or gaps in the schedules of full-time magistrates – would be addressed largely by technology.
Police officers or residents who would have gone to part-time magistrates instead would confer with full-time magistrates in nearby districts by videoconference.
Most districts in the state already rely heavily on videoconferencing, and all districts should have remote capability by July 1, Hade said. The cost of expanding or upgrading the systems is estimated at $787,000. The money will come from the courts technology fund created in 2006 by an addition to the fees for civil processes.