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Thursday, February 28, 2013
The wheels of justice always seem to grind slowly. But in the Roanoke Valley, with six Circuit Court judges, they turn a bit faster than in some other places. The wait for a civil trial is often measured in months, sometimes as few as three or four.
In Montgomery County, you’ll find a different story. There, a plaintiff in an auto accident case can expect to wait 10 months to a year for a trial. That delay is frustrating, said Pete Beller , a veteran attorney from Christiansburg.
For a client disabled by an accident that wasn’t his fault, and who’s lost his primary income, it can easily spell bankruptcy. That harks back to the old saying, “justice delayed is justice denied.”
Unfortunately, the Roanoke Valley appears to be headed in that direction, because of a failure of the Virginia General Assembly. We now have two judicial vacancies on Circuit Court and one in Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.
In the General Assembly session just concluded, none of those got funded or filled. How did that happen?
I’ve spent the better part of two days talking to local state lawmakers and some others about this. The first thing you hear is, the 23rd Judicial Circuit (Roanoke, Roanoke County, Salem) isn’t the only one that got shortchanged.
Across the state, there are 48 judicial vacancies. Gov. Bob McDonnell, who as an attorney should know better, recommended funding for filling only 15. The House of Delegates recommended filling 32. And the Senate recommended filling 26.
In the 23rd Judicial Circuit, the House budget would have filled one Circuit Court position and the vacancy on J&D Court. The Senate budget would have filled only the J&D Court vacancy.
When lawmakers from each chamber got together to hash out those and other differences, somehow the Roanoke Valley emerged with zero filled vacancies, an outrage that’s left a lot of people scratching their heads. The budget conference committee’s report recommended filling only 20 positions in all. Go figure.
Among other things, it takes the Roanoke Valley’s J&D Court — which in many respects handles the messiest juvenile crime and family law cases — down from four judges to three. One more will be forced to retire next year because of his age.
“The most important one is the J&D Court seat,” said Del. Greg Habeeb, R-Salem . “If we lose another judge there, it would literally shut down that court.”
Habeeb and Del. Onzlee Ware, D-Roanoke , worked hard to get at least two of three vacancies filled. As the House and Senate budget committees were hashing out their differences, Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke , wrote letters urging the lawmakers on the budget conference committee to adopt the House position.
Edwards also lobbied them personally. More or less all he could get was a noncommittal shrug. The three unfilled bench seats “are going to put a strain on the judiciary throughout the region,” he said.
What did Sen. Ralph Smith do? Pretty much nothing. He did not lobby. He did not send letters. He didn’t try to rally the Republican troops, he told me.
“I think it got overshadowed by other budget issues,” said Smith, R-Bedford County . “Ninety percent of the effort was on transportation and other issues.” Del. Chris Head, R- Botetourt Co., was out of town and could not be reached for comment.
Meanwhile, the Roanoke Bar Association put a lot of time and effort into fielding judicial candidates and winnowing that number down to three recommendations.
For Circuit Court, the association’s overwhelming choice was David Carson, a local attorney who over the past eight years has invested thousands of volunteer hours ably leading the Roanoke School Board through some of its roughest-ever budgets. The secondary choice was Frank Rogers, a respected local attorney.
For J&D Court, the bar association recommended Leisa Ciaffone , who already serves as a part-time substitute judge.
Sadly, the General Assembly’s inaction leaves all three of them spinning their wheels, and it also means all the bar association’s work was for naught.
More importantly, it’s going to tie up the courts, which will affect average folks in myriad ways.
Gov. Bob McDonnell will have an opportunity in April to remedy this mess at least partially. He’s got about $9 million in unappropriated funds to play around with. Each new judgeship costs roughly $250,000, including staff. Our local lawmakers are crossing their fingers, hoping we get at least one from that last-ditch process.
But remember, the governor originally proposed filling only 15 seats. And the legislature already has filled 20.
What’s that old saying again? “Justice delayed is justice denied.”
It may be time to get ready for that.
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