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Balancing budgets, balancing caseloads

NORFOLK – Chief Justice Leroy Rountree Hassell Sr. says he will not invoke his constitutional power to reassign judges to courts suffering under heavy caseloads.

His declaration came earlier today during his State of the Judiciary address to Virginia circuit court judges gathered for the annual Judicial Conference.

Hassell said Article VI, Section 4 of the Virginia Constitution gives him the authority to temporarily reassign judges to help out in jurisdictions beyond their home courts.

Conceivably, the chief could use that power to shuffle judges to other courts to help their cash-strapped colleagues stay on top of their dockets.

The chief hit a headwind in 2007 when he invoked that constitutional provision in a controversy over whether all Richmond Circuit Court judges would hear both civil and criminal cases.

But Hassell said he will not exercise that constitutional power to meet the present budget crisis, repeating the statement for emphasis.

“I ask that we voluntarily assist each other. I ask that we all acquire the spirit and that spirit be contagious,” Hassell said.

During his tenure as chief justice, Hassell has consistently challenged the bar to give, and give again, through pro bono work and community service. Now he is asking trial judges to step up and do their part.

After its freeze on filling judicial vacancies, the General Assembly expects to save some $11.2 million over the next biennium, Hassell said. But that savings anticipates there will be about 50 fewer judges on the bench by June 30, 2012.

“That represents a decrease of 12 percent of Virginia’s total judges,” Hassell said. “Some circuits and districts are burdened further because they already need extra judges.” He pointed to the Petersburg JDR court, which is “in dire need of help. We must respond.”

Hassell cited metropolitan Richmond as an area where judges from Henrico and Chesterfield Counties and the City of Richmond “regularly volunteer to help each other.”

By Deborah Elkins

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