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‘Too much democracy’ in court realignment methodology?

Sen. Henry L. Marsh III suggested today that a series of hearings this summer on a proposal to realign the state’s judicial circuits and districts might not be wise politically.

“You can have too much democracy,” he said at a meeting of the Committee on District Courts, one of the judiciary’s two top policy-making bodies. As chairman of the Senate Courts of Justice Committee, Marsh is a member of the committee, which includes legislators as well as judges. It’s chaired by Chief Justice Cynthia D. Kinser.

A realignment plan was introduced in the General Assembly this session, but it was withdrawn to give the court system a chance to respond to it and develop a plan of its own.

Marsh’s comment came after Kinser and Karl Hade, the executive secretary of the Supreme Court, outlined the steps the court system is taking to present a realignment proposal to the General Assembly by Nov. 1.

Kinser has appointed a 22-member committee to supervise the effort, and Kinser said it was “pleasantly surprised at the quality of the information that had been gathered” before its first meeting yesterday.

Hade said his staff has obtained population information from the legislature’s redistricting staff to supplement the court system’s caseload statistics. It also has sent and received surveys from more than 300 judges and court clerks.

Once the realignment committee has had a chance to review those comments and evaluate the statistics, it will conduct six town hall meetings around the state in July, Hade said.

Marsh noted that “there seems to be a recognition that some realignment is necessary.”

He said he feared that the hearings would produce “a lot of criticism from people who don’t understand the system” just before all 140 seats in the General Assembly are contested in November.

“This is something that’s necessary and you should keep the politics out of it,” he said.

Sen. W. Roscoe Reynolds, D-Martinsville and another legislator member of the committee, didn’t challenge Marsh’s observation directly, but his questions and comments to Hade suggested that the realignment committee should get all the input it can, especially “from the judges and clerks, the ones that are going to be most affected.”

Reynolds added that the judges in his area are “very busy,” but he has heard that is not the case in other sections of the state. He said he hoped the study would produce hard evidence to verify or refute such anecdotes.

Hade said development of the plan is an ambitious undertaking. He noted that Alabama and West Virginia had realigned their courts recently and taken at least two years and spent hundreds of thousands on consultants to do it. His staff will have barely six months to complete the process and does not plan to hire outside help, he said.

He said the staff is just beginning to develop information on the effect of realignment on all the agencies that could be affected by it – from sheriffs, prosecutors and defense attorneys to social service and corrections agencies.

Told that one such collateral consequence likely will be the makeup of the Virginia State Bar Council, Hade acknowledged that he had not thought about that possibility but predicted that there will be similar effects on other entities from any realignment.

VSB Council membership is based on the number of lawyers in a judicial circuit.

By Alan Cooper

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