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Legislators hear boundary study panel’s report

Key legislators got a look last week at a court committee’s work on judicial redistricting in Virginia, and it appears the committee is sticking with “new math.”

Instead of a wholesale redistricting that would reduce the number of circuits, districts and judges in the commonwealth, as two legislators proposed earlier this year, the committee will just divide by 12. The group likely will recommend maintaining the same numbers of courts and personnel, but will suggest using an administrative overlay of 12 regions to balance caseloads among courts.

The 22-member Judicial Boundary Realignment Study Committee unveiled its working plan today at a joint meeting of the Judicial Council and the Committee on District Courts. Under the proposal, 31 circuits with 154 judges, and 32 districts with 236 general district and juvenile and domestic relations courts judges, will be divided into the 12 regions.

Within those 12 regions, sitting chief judges of the courts would meet twice annually to assess a need to reassign judges in an effort to balance caseloads among the jurists in that region.

The JBRS committee, chaired by Loudoun County Circuit Court Judge Thomas D. Horne, will make a final report to Supreme Court Chief Justice Cynthia D. Kinser in October, with final recommendations from the judicial branch due to the General Assembly by Nov. 1.

Kinser appointed the committee in response to an invitation from Sen. Henry L. Marsh III, D-Richmond, chair of the Senate Courts of Justice Committee. Marsh attended the Sept. 19 joint meeting, along with other state senators; Sen. Walter Stosch, R-Henrico; Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Mechanicsville; and Sen. Roscoe Reynolds, D-Martinsville. Del. Dave Albo, R-Springfield, chair of the House Courts of Justice Committee, also attended.

To support the committee’s work, Supreme Court staff surveyed judges to rank factors that go into assessing workload analysis, including new cases per judge, bench time, travel time, population trends in different locales and “communities of interest” that support the administration of justice in a given area. The committee used this data to expand on the basic metric used to assess caseloads, which simply looks at commenced cases per judge, and whether judges in a particular circuit or district are above or below the statewide average for a given year.

There’s such a “disparity in the way cases are counted,” Horne said. For instance, in some areas, each time a domestic relations case is reopened, “that will be a new case with a new case number.” In other places, the reopened case keeps the same number and is not re-counted.

Horne told the group that many states that have looked at redistricting have used a more complex formula for a “weighted case load,” according to the National Center for State Courts. Albo asked if the committee had considered advocating for the more thorough study, but Horne said “that was not part of our charge” from the General Assembly. Albo invited the committee to add to its final report additional matters worthy of legislative consideration, even if they appeared to fall outside the specific assignment.

In public hearings and private comments, committee members repeatedly heard about the importance of “communities of interest” within existing circuits, including support agencies, social service departments and shared sources of funding.

Horne said he had heard a complaint that a proposed regional overlay was just “kicking the can down the road.” But the committee did not necessarily see an overhaul of judicial boundaries as inevitable, despite Virginia’s population having doubled since boundaries were last redrawn in the early 1970s.

In response to McDougle’s question about costs for the regional overlay, Kinser indicated the committee decided to use sitting judges to administer the system, in an effort to control costs. Horne said there may be a slight increase in travel costs.

Isn’t this “basically a nice way of not firing judges?” Albo asked. If there are some jurisdictions with a caseload that’s 45 percent below the statewide average, you can try to eliminate that position and create a new judge position in another area, he said. But Horne said the disparities “were not that dramatic” and did not necessarily require a radical approach.

Albo acknowledged that House members “view judges differently than someone in a regular [reduction in force]” when other state employees are laid off. Lawyers often leave a lucrative law practice to go on the bench, and “who in the heck would want to be a judge” if they thought the position could easily be eliminated?

Stosch pointed out that funding for the judiciary goes beyond the cost of judges, as he has received reports that “some courts have to shut down early every day because of the lack of support” to handle administrative work in clerks’ offices. Karl Hade, Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court, confirmed there are approximately 300 unfunded positions needed in state clerks’ offices.

Both Marsh and Albo praised the committee’s work, which offers an alternative to the redistricting proposal advanced last year by Sen. John S. Edwards, D-Roanoke, and Del. Bill Janis, R-Henrico, who will not seek reelection and is running instead for Henrico County Commonwealth’s Attorney.

“We produced a bill and rammed it down your throats,” Albo said. “Sen. Marsh wisely calmed us down. I’m very impressed by the work product here.”

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