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Study calls for more judges in Virginia

Virginia needs at least 30 new judgeships in circuit and juvenile courts to keep up with the caseload, says a new study.

But the study also says the state would see little benefit from redrawing the judicial district boundaries that have been in place since 1973.

It’s also unlikely that lawmakers can find the dollars to fulfill the study’s recommendations for new judges, since the price tag would be more than $9 million a year.

Rising caseloads in several of the state’s judicial districts prompted lawmakers to initiate the judicial workload study by the National Center for State Courts. The study took about a year and a half and cost Virginia $240,000.

The NCSC’s report was given to the state Supreme Court last month, and the results were presented to the House Appropriations Committee during its annual budget retreat last week.

The study arose because in the 40 years since the state’s judicial circuits were last drawn, the population has shifted, and some districts now have much higher caseloads than others.

The 15th circuit, for example, which includes much of the Fredericksburg area, is one of the busiest in the state. In 2009, the 15th circuit started 2,466 cases per judge, the second-highest level in the state and far above the state average of 1,837.

While some lawmakers proposed adding judges in high-volume circuits and others proposed plans to redraw the judicial districts, eventually they agreed to do the study first.

Virginia lawmakers have also frozen a number of judge slots in recent years, not filling vacancies when judges retire, to save money.

Legislators have slowly unfrozen a few of those. The budget approved by lawmakers in February of this year authorized filling 20 of those vacancies, plus another 11 proposed by Gov. Bob McDonnell. Together, those moves reduced the vacancy rate to 4.2 percent, Senate Finance committee staff said at the time.

The NCSC staff visited various state courts and sent all of the state’s judges a web-based survey, with a 97 percent participation rate.

They asked judges about how much time and effort different types of cases take, as some are more complex than others, and developed a weighted caseload calculation to determine which districts are indeed overworked.

That calculation, the report says, shows that the state needs more judges.

“The weighted caseload model clearly demonstrates that the number of judges currently sitting at each of Virginia’s three trial court types is inadequate to handle the total workload of the courts,” the report says. “The General Assembly should consider filling judicial vacancies, and in some cases creating new judicial positions, in circuits and districts where the weighted caseload model shows a need for additional judicial resources.”

The report says the state’s circuit courts need to fill all current vacancies, plus add another 13 new judges, to keep up with the caseload.

In general district courts, the report says the number of judgeships currently authorized is adequate, if lawmakers fill at least six of the vacancies. And for juvenile and domestic relations courts, the report recommends 17 new judges.

The state currently pays circuit judges $158,134 a year, and general district judges $142,329 a year.

But salary isn’t the only cost of hiring a new judge. Additional costs include benefits like health insurance and retirement. For circuit court judges, there’s also the cost of a clerk, and the state compensation board estimates that circuit judgeships need two additional deputy sheriffs for security and general district judges need one deputy.

Overall, the cost of each new circuit judge is about $377,000 a year, and the cost for each new general district or juvenile judge would be about $247,000 a year.

One state delegate said he doubts lawmakers will allocate that kind of money for new judgeships in the two-year state budget they’ll write in the 2014 session, which starts in January.

“I certainly think we’ll try to make a dent into it,” said House Majority Leader Del. Kirk Cox, R–Colonial Heights, who is a member of the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee. “But it would be very difficult to do the ‘full monty,’ as they say.”

McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin said the governor—who will write that new two-year budget before leaving office in January—is “still evaluating funding for these judgeships, both vacancies and new judges, but no decisions have been made yet.”

While the courts currently call in retired judges as substitutes for frozen vacancies, the NCSC report says the state should find a better system because using retired judges long-term could “compromise the efficiency and quality of case processing.”

While the NCSC report says its new weighted caseload system should be used to inform any effort to redraw the state’s judicial districts, it also says such a judicial redistricting would be unlikely to bring great benefits, and won’t fix the overarching problem of not having enough judges for the caseload.

Chelyen Davis: 540/368-5028