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Fewer Roanoke circuit judges would pinch neighboring jurisdictions that benefit from cooperative agreements.
Monday, February 25, 2013
The Roanoke Valley is facing a courthouse crisis, one with consequences that could be felt well beyond the immediate region.
The final budget approved by state legislators this past weekend failed to fund replacements for two retiring judges in the 23rd Judicial Circuit. Unless Gov. Bob McDonnell amends the budget, the number of circuit court judges assigned to Roanoke, Roanoke County and Salem will drop from six to four by April. A seat on the juvenile and domestic relations court also was left vacant.
A bipartisan group of legislators led by Roanoke Del. Onzlee Ware, D-Roanoke, worked together to fund one of the circuit judgeships in the proposed House budget, but they were unable to preserve those dollars during last-minute budget negotiations. They need help from lawmakers in neighboring communities as they seek backing from the governor.
There is good cause for delegates and senators from nearby districts to rally in support. Judges in the Roanoke circuit assist colleagues in surrounding jurisdictions when travel makes it difficult to keep up with scheduled hearings. A one-third reduction in manpower would result in case backlogs not only in the Roanoke Valley, but in other circuits that have benefitted from the cooperative arrangement.
“The public is going to experience that delay,” said Tom Miller, president of the Roanoke Bar Association. “It is a regional issue that stretches all the way from the Alleghany Highlands to the Roanoke Valley to the New River Valley.”
Forty-eight vacancies exist or are pending across the commonwealth. McDonnell funded 15 in his budget proposal. House leaders sought to fill a total of 32 while senators pushed for 26, but senior budget negotiators winnowed the list to 20. Among the casualties was the Roanoke juvenile court seat, which had previously been approved by both legislative chambers.
Legislators have asked the Virginia Supreme Court and the National Center for State Courts to develop a caseload formula to better distribute workload across the commonwealth’s courthouses. A report due in November will help legislators redraw judicial districts and assign an appropriate number of judges to each one.
Roanoke’s judges have been team players, lending a hand with tight schedules in other far-flung circuits. It’ll take similar teamwork from legislators in western Virginia to make sure their constituents don’t find long lines at the courthouse door.
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