Virginia judges are hoping for new language in the state’s Conflict of Interest Act to clarify that they’re not violating state law when they go to bar meetings or accept office support from their local government.
The conflict law issues were highlighted this year by Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons. In his State of the Judiciary address, Lemons said many judges have expressed frustration trying to navigate the new conflict rules.
“It is very clear that COIA was enacted with the legislative and executive branches in mind, not the judicial branch,” Lemons said.
Lemons told judges the rules “do not seem to have you in mind but, literally construed, sweep you within in its provisions.”
The law sweeps too broadly because of expansive definitions of forbidden “gifts” from “lobbyists,” according to an explanation provided by the court.
Because local governments and bar groups often perform lobbying functions, their routine courtesies for judges could be deemed improper influence under the law, a court spokesperson said.
Local governments often provide office supplies and research materials for judges or pay for judges to attend training conferences. If the locality is deemed a lobbyist, items of more than $100 in value could be prohibited, the court said.
Similarly, many bar associations also are registered lobbyists. Complimentary memberships, conference registrations and hotel rooms that used to be common courtesies for judges on seminar panels are now subject to scrutiny as tainted “gifts,” under the law.
“The new provisions of the Act are having a chilling effect on interactions between judges and the bar, and have raised concerns about judges’ interactions with their localities,” the court spokesperson said.
Reform may be coming. Legislation passed this year invited suggestions for change from the Supreme Court, with an Oct. 1 deadline.
Lemons said in his address that he hopes for changes to the conflict law “so that its application to members of the judiciary will be more appropriate.”
Fines and costs
With a lawsuit pending and the U.S. Justice Department turning up the heat, court leaders also are examining Virginia’s systems for collection of fines and costs from indigent offenders. Assembly legislation in 2016 called for a rule setting requirements for court-ordered installment payment plans.
The Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville in July filed a federal class action lawsuit claiming Virginia court practices trap low-income Virginians in a “vicious cycle,” denying them reliable lawful transportation while they work to meet court obligations.
Lemons assembled a discussion group to recommend changes. The goal is not only to facilitate collection of money owed, but also to “assure the fair treatment of the citizens,” Lemons said in his address.
The 11-member group, including judges from all trial court levels and two attorneys, has proposed a new rule, the court reported. The undisclosed proposal is now before the Supreme Court for consideration, the court spokesperson said.
Problem-solving court dockets
Special court dockets, addressing addiction, mental health or veterans’ issues, are already part of the Virginia court landscape. More could be on the way.
A proposed rule for launching and operating problem-solving dockets in Virginia courts is expected to be on the agenda for two court panels this week.
The rule emerged from an Aug. 15 meeting that included members of the state’s Drug Treatment Court Advisory Committee, the newly formed Veteran’s Docket Advisory Committee and the Behavioral/Mental Health Advisory Committee.
The rule contemplates creation of a “Problem Solving Docket Advisory Committee” by order of the chief justice. The rule is expected to be considered this week by both the Judicial Council and the Committee on District Courts. The panels meet Sept. 8.
Standards for mental health and veterans’ dockets are expected to be complete by Dec. 1, the court spokesperson said.
New judges abound
The Virginia trial bench includes a large number of rookie judges. Last year, a quarter of the state’s judges were newly elected, Lemons noted.
Court administrators stepped up their training game in response, the chief justice said. Fifty-seven judges participated in a new mentor judge workshop in March, Lemons reported.
In the judge mentor program, new judges are paired with mentors based primarily on court type and proximity. Mentors are expected to conduct two courtroom observations and a face-to-face meeting with the rookie within the first two weeks.
Supreme Court administrative staffers keep tabs on the new judges to make sure the process runs smoothly, a spokesperson said.
The mentor program is only a part of the training for new judges. A two-week education program in Richmond addresses topics including personality types, judicial stress management, implicit bias, courtroom demeanor and handling self-represented litigants.
Many judges attend or participate online in courses offered by the National Judicial College in Reno, Nevada. Courses are available from other sources, including the Williamsburg-based National Center for State Courts.