The 2021 General Assembly session was a successful one for advocates of judicial reform, with several bills passing that affect elements of the justice system in Virginia.
One notable effect of the latest round of legislation is an increase in positions for lawyers, namely in the appellate field.
“It’s a great time to be an appellate lawyer in Virginia,” Virginia Beach attorney Steve Emmert said. Emmert wrote on his website earlier this month about “an expanding market for appellate talent” in the commonwealth, stemming from the expansion of the Court of Appeals of Virginia from 11 to 17 judges.
The bill, Senate Bill 1261, passed both chambers on party lines and was signed into law by Gov. Ralph Northam on March 31. In addition to adding six new judges, once the legislation goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2022, the jurisdiction of the Court of Appeals will expand by providing an appeal of right in all civil cases.
“Starting on Jan. 1 I’ll be going to the Court of Appeals a whole lot more,” Emmert said. Emmert, who primarily handles civil appeals, said almost all of his practice is in the Supreme Court of Virginia presently.
“It makes the system better, because everybody gets an explanation for why the court has ruled the way it has,” Emmert said. “The Court of Appeals, by statute, has to explain in writing the reasons for each of its rulings, the Supreme Court does not.”
In addition, SB 1261 “provides that the Attorney General shall represent the Commonwealth in criminal appeals,” unless the attorney that prosecuted the case files a notice of appearance. To account for this, the General Assembly budgeted for “30-plus” additional assistant attorneys general and seven new lawyer positions at the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission. In addition, the new judges at the Court of Appeals will each need law clerks.
All told, while there is no concrete number of positions opened in appellate work, Emmert estimates the number of new appellate positions will be “up over 50.” Emmert anticipates sufficient demand for these positions.
“There are probably a number of young lawyers or mid-career lawyers who are looking for a career change who might see these want ads to hire a bunch of appellate lawyers and think, ‘That sounds like fun,’” Emmert said.
Along with the Court of Appeals expansion came the passage of SB 1442, which establishes a public defender office in Chesterfield County. Introduced by Sen. Joseph Morrissey, D-Richmond, the bill received vast bipartisan support.
Maria Jankowski, deputy executive director of the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission, said the new office will have 22 attorneys, along with a paralegal, two mitigation specialists and other support staff. The Chesterfield Observer reported that the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission has been budgeted $3.16 million to hire 34 employees and lease office space in Chesterfield. The office is expected to be open by the end of the year.
Outside of direct action from the General Assembly, some commonwealth’s attorneys’ offices are proposing staff increases. Ben Shnider, Deputy Chief of Staff and Public Information Officer for Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano, said their office is proposing 15 additional positions. The proposal is in the Fairfax County advertised budget, which was set to get marked up the week of April 26.
Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney Amy Ashworth could not confirm new positions, but wrote that new positions at her office “are anticipated to be part of an overall budget increase” voted on by the Prince William County Board of County Supervisors.
“Our office has advocated for an increase in positions due in part to the anticipated growing number of jury trials following changes in sentencing laws, as well as an overall lack of personnel growth over the last few years,” Ashworth wrote.
By the time the new legislation goes into full effect, Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax County, estimates the number of new entry-level and mid-level openings could approach triple digits. Surovell called the amount of new positions created “pretty unprecedented.”
“I think that it shows that we’re finally making some investments in the justice system. And I think we’re making some long overdue investments in our justice system,” Surovell said. “If you want to do justice correctly and in a fair way, it requires lawyers looking at and working on cases.”
Emmert noted the closest comparison he could recall to this “unique situation” was 1985, when the Court of Appeals of Virginia was first established.
“I’m sure that there were a lot more lawyers that were hired in the appellate sector back in 1985, and this is going to be kind of parallel to that,” Emmert said.
Noting that the openings can help “get people experience in a lot of different areas,” Surovell said he believes the positions created by the new legislation will be filled relatively quickly.
“I think it’s a good time to be a lawyer coming out of law school,” Surovell said.