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A freeze on new judges

House panel: Don’t fill any judicial vacancies until 2012

The House Appropriations Committee wants to put a freeze on filling judicial vacancies through June 30, 2012.

“[T]he total number of authorized judges in any judicial district or circuit shall be reduced by a number equal to the number of judges retiring, dying or resigning from that district or circuit for any authorized judgeship which was vacant or became vacant on or after February 15, 2010,” according to House Bill 30.

The bill contains amendments to the 2011-12 budget proposed by former Gov. Tim Kaine and his successor, Bob McDonnell.

HB 29, which contains amendments to the 2010 budget, projects a savings of just under $1 million this year, and HB 30 says the freeze would save about $4 million in 2011 and just over $6.5 million in 2012.

“The state’s broke and needs to save money,” said Del. Dave Albo, the Fairfax Republican who chairs the House Courts of Justice Committee.

With the rejection of Kaine’s proposal to raise the state income tax, legislators are reduced to “looking under couch cushions for money,” he said.

Sen. Henry L. Marsh III is the Richmond Democrat who is Albo’s counterpart on the Senate Courts of Justice Committee and perhaps the staunchest advocate for the judicial system in the legislature, but he did not reject the concept of a freeze out of hand.

“Money is tight and that’s gong to affect everything we do down here,” he said. He suggested maintaining the flexibility to fill what he termed “a critical vacancy” rather than implementing a hard freeze.

The Senate Finance Committee budget hits the judicial system in other areas but says nothing about a freeze.

Del. Bill Janis, R-Henrico, who chairs the judicial systems subcommittee of the House Courts committee, said, “There’s got to be shared sacrifice.”

He noted that the total annual cost of a judgeship is about $250,000, including retirement and other benefits, a figure that would pay the starting salary for five or six teachers in most jurisdictions.

Critical needs can be met with retired and substitute judges and assistance from judges in adjacent jurisdictions, he said.

“We’ve got good [judges],” Janis said. “I’ve got confidence that they can make it work without jeopardizing the administration of justice.”

The proposed freeze must seem especially draconian to court administrators. They had identified a need for 16 additional judgeships in 2008 but didn’t ask for the seats to be created in 2009 or again this year. In fact, Karl Hade, the Supreme Court’s executive secretary, wrote the committees that the system didn’t even go through the exercise of seeing if caseloads indicated a need for more judgeships.

Judicial system expenditures for the 2009 fiscal year were $365 compared with $643 million the system took in in fines, fees and costs. Most of the revenues go to the state general fund.

Expenses include the cost of running general district and appellate courts and the cost of circuit court judges and indigent criminal defense. They do not include costs of prosecutors, sheriffs and circuit court clerks, which are financed through the State Compensation Board with general fund money.

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