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Virus-driven budget cuts hit justice system

lady-justiceHopes for extra state money to boost district courts’ staff, public defender ranks and legal aid offices have evaporated as the COVID-19 virus forced state budget rollbacks.

Spending cuts recommended by Gov. Ralph Northam even signaled delay of a long-sought new general district judgeship in Fairfax County.

Legislators meeting in a one-day veto-override session April 22 offered no objections to Northam’s proposed cuts in light of the novel coronavirus pandemic that eviscerated expected state revenues following the March 7 end of the Assembly’s regular session.

District court clerks

The biggest loser in the round of virus-driven budget cuts may be district court clerk offices.

Court officials contended last fall the system was short 276 full-time district court clerks’ positions. The state budget was funding clerks’ offices at just 80% of its need, supporters said.

Legislators were somewhat sympathetic. The budget approved by the Assembly just before the virus impact hit would have provided for 90 new deputy clerk positions in the first year of the two-year plan and an additional 30 new posts the next year.

Although the added money was labeled for general district courts, the court system would have been authorized to spend the allocation for both general district and juvenile and domestic relations court clerk positions, according to a Supreme Court spokesperson.

Despite the temporary loss of the funding boost, clerk staffers will “continue to do the best they can to serve the public, judges and others who interact with the district courts,” the court said in an email.

“The pressures of these staffing needs will be felt even more acutely when the courts begin to resume more normal operations and the thousands of cases that have been continued will need to be heard and processed. We appreciate the Governor’s approach of delaying rather than removing the funding for these positions, and we hope that when it is time to restore the funding, the essential nature of the services provided by these positions will be recognized and prioritized,” the court spokesperson said.

Public defender slots

Public defender offices were hoping for an additional 59 assistant PD positions. Recruitment plans now are on hold, said Maria Jankowski of the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission.

“We need the positions and made the case for the urgency. Ultimately we will continue to serve our clients,” Jankowski said. “That said, we were not uniquely singled out and understand that this is unprecedented,” she added.

Northam’s proposed cuts will not affect plans to create a public defender office for Prince William County, the IDC said. A July launch date has been planned.

Legal aid offices

The cuts to legal aid offices hinder the effort to assist renters fighting eviction, according to Mark D. Braley, executive director of the Legal Services Corporation of Virginia.

“We understand the need for pressing the pause button on new spending, but this removal of funds specifically intended to reduce evictions will hinder legal aid’s ability to meet the flood of evictions coming as a result of the pandemic,” Braley wrote in a published essay.

The Northam cut removes money for 14 attorney positions, Braley said. Other legal aid funding sources also are drying up, he added.

“Facing $2.5 million in losses on top of the removal of its $1.5 million general revenue increase means legal aid programs across Virginia, on the front-line of alleviating the impact of COVID-19 for vulnerable Virginians, will have to do with far fewer resources,” Braley said.

Fairfax judgeship

For two years, Fairfax County General District Chief Judge Lisa A. Mayne and fellow Judge Manuel A. Capsalis traveled to Richmond to ask for an added judgeship for the 19th District. Their efforts appeared to be rewarded in 2020 with inclusion of funding for a 12th general district bench seat in the state budget.

The judgeship is now on hold. Mayne said she understands the circumstances.

“The Court is grateful that the General Assembly recognized our need for a twelfth judge and amended the code to authorize the additional judge. Loss of the funding, while disappointing, is understandable given the current situation,” Mayne said in an email.

“We are hopeful the General Assembly will move as quickly as possible to restore the funding once the economy stabilizes. If, as some predict, social distancing will be with us for some time, the additional judge will go a long way toward preserving smaller dockets and maintaining proper distance protocols once resumption of normal dockets is possible,” Mayne said.