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Panel will monitor, tweak judge evaluation program

Peter Vieth//May 14, 2015

Panel will monitor, tweak judge evaluation program

Peter Vieth//May 14, 2015

Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

ROANOKE – Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons has named a 14-member panel to recommend improvements for the newly revived Judicial Performance Evaluation program.

The program could be expanded to include evaluation of the state’s appellate judges, according to Lemons.

The program currently surveys lawyers and court staffers to gauge the effectiveness of Virginia’s trial judges. The program sent 20 survey reports to the General Assembly last year. Four judges up for new terms were not reappointed during the 2015 session.

Another 30 reports are expected to be delivered to legislators at the end of this year.

Lemons announced the JPE Advisory Committee in his inaugural State of the Judiciary address Tuesday before a gathering of circuit and appellate judges and bar leaders in Roanoke.

“The survey response rate has been relatively high, many attorneys and other survey recipients have participated and their reaction to the process has been favorable. But the court and the program staff have also received significant suggestions for ways to improve the program,” Lemons said.

“We must continue to monitor the program and seek ways to improve it,” he said.

Lemons named Supreme Court Justice Cleo E. Powell to chair the committee, which will report to Lemons. The panel will have its first meeting next month and will likely meet quarterly for the first year or two, Lemons said.

Lemons said he anticipates the committee will make recommendations on protocols for the evaluation of Virginia’s appellate judges. The current program addresses only trial court judges.

The committee is made up of judges at various levels of the Virginia court system as well as current Virginia State Bar president Kevin Martingayle and Alexandria Circuit Court Clerk Edward Semonian Jr.

See below for a complete list of members.

Pro se litigants focus of study

The Supreme Court is turning its attention to ways to make the judicial system more accessible for litigants without lawyers, Lemons said.

“It’s a very important topic,” the chief justice said.

The court’s Access to Justice Commission is studying websites of other state courts that use online court forms and instructions to promote access for self-represented litigants, he said.

A commission panel is getting advice from judges and clerks as it looks for ways to improve the Virginia court system website, Lemons said.

The Supreme Court amended its canons of judicial ethics in February to clarify that a judge may explain the judicial process to pro se litigants and point out available free legal aid without jeopardizing impartiality.

New judges on the job

Lemons hailed the Assembly’s effort to put more judges on the state’s trial court benches.

The legislature found additional money during the 2015 session and filled 405 of the 429 available judgeships, effective July 1. The Assembly also lifted the freeze on judicial vacancies.

In her State of the Judiciary addresses, immediate past Chief Justice Cynthia D. Kinser regularly called for pressure on the Assembly to loosen purse strings for judicial funding. Lemons’ remarks sounded a different note.

“We’re very grateful to the General Assembly for their actions. We’re moving in the right direction,” Lemons said.

“We enjoy a good and cooperative relationship with the General Assembly as well as the executive branch,” Lemons said.

Kinser said she was delighted with the added judges. “Finally, the General Assembly listened and filled so many of those vacant judgeships,” Kinser said.

The Assembly’s funding of additional judgeships means a quarter of all of Virginia’s judges were elected to their current offices in the last year, Lemons said.

“That’s a huge number of new judges, a lot of training, a lot of effort to acclimate people to their new positions,” Lemons said.

The news for current judges is better, as well. All judges and justices get a two percent pay raise effective Aug. 10. The per-diem payment for retired-recall judges has been increased by 25 percent, to $250.

“I wish it could be more. You deserve more,” Lemons told the gathering of judges.

Increased retirement age for all but 23 judges

The increase in the retirement age for judges from 70 to 73 years approved affects all but 23 trial court judges, Lemons said.

The Assembly has considered bills to raise the judicial retirement age every year since 2007, Lemons said.

“We have consistently supported measures that simply raise the mandatory retirement age of all judges to 73,” Lemons said.

The version finally passed and signed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe on April 30 was limited to appellate judges and those trial judges newly elected or appointed to new terms after July 1 of this year.

Court staffers estimate there are 23 judges who will reach age 70 before the end of their term and will not have an opportunity to be reappointed under the new mandatory retirement age of 73, Lemons said.

Some legislators have said that judges forced to retire under the current 70 year cap can seek election to a new term by the General Assembly, if their local legislative delegation approves. They would then be able to remain on the bench until age 73.

At the Judicial Conference meeting, Lemons presented Kinser with the Harry L. Carrico Outstanding Career Service Award.

The award is presented annually by the Judicial Council of Virginia to a judge who demonstrated exceptional leadership in the administration of the courts while exhibiting the traits of integrity, courtesy, impartiality, wisdom and humility.

Members of the Judicial Performance Evaluation Advisory Committee are:

Justice Cleo E. Powell
Supreme Court of Virginia

Judge Theresa M. Chafin
Court of Appeals of Virginia

Judge Joi Jeter Taylor
Thirteenth Judicial Circuit

Judge Jerrauld C. Jones
Fourth Judicial Circuit

Judge Clifford L. Athey Jr.
Twenty-sixth Judicial Circuit

Judge R. Edwin Burnette Jr.
Twenty-fourth Judicial Circuit

Judge Tracy W. J. Thorne-Begland
Thirteenth Judicial District

Judge Becky J. Moore
Eighteenth Judicial District

Judge Jacqueline F. Ward Talevi
Twenty-third Judicial District

Judge A. Ellen White
Twenty-fourth Judicial District

Judge Alfreda Talton-Harris
Fifth Judicial District

Judge Rufus A. Banks Jr.
First Judicial District

Kevin Martingayle
Bischoff Martingayle, P.C.

Edward Semonian Jr., Clerk
Eighteenth Judicial Circuit

Ex Officio Members:

Joanne B. Rome
Administrative Counsel to Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons

Patricia G. Davis
JPE Program Director

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