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Sunday, March 17, 2013
April 1 will be like any other early spring day for most of us in the Roanoke Valley. Government offices will open, the buses will run, the trash will be collected, students will return to school, businesses will look forward to a new week and Washington will still be dysfunctional. Business as usual, that is, unless you have business to conduct in one of the valley’s courthouses.
The 23rd Judicial Circuit includes Salem, Roanoke County and Roanoke. This circuit has long enjoyed the reputation statewide of having excellent jurists who are accessible and responsive to the public that they serve. However, the public’s access to the judicial system will change for the worse if the General Assembly’s refusal to continue funding our judiciary becomes a reality.
The six circuit court judges will be reduced to four with the retirements of Judges Jonathan Apgar and Robert Doherty. Judge John Ferguson’s retirement from the Juvenile Court will bring the number of judges serving all three localities down to just three judges at a time when the per judge case load in that court is among the highest in the state.
These cuts are not part of a comprehensive balancing strategy. The General Assembly is simply giving those seats to other, more powerful regions of the state.
Timely access to the courts is the issue with which we all must be concerned. Everybody who has business with these courts will feel the pinch. Even today with six circuit judges, Salem has a “sitting” judge only 2 1⁄2 days a week. Roanoke County has one full-time judge and two other judges who split their time with the other two jurisdictions.
Even with full staffing, hearings in the juvenile courts are currently set three and four months out. We are not talking about inconveniencing lawyers here; we are talking about real people with real problems who look to the courts for assistance. Cases involving child custody or support, children with behavioral and emotional complications in criminal trouble and families whose lives are on hold while their cases languish in the court system. All of those folks will have to wait even longer for an overworked and understaffed judiciary to consider their fates.
We currently enjoy the “luxury” of having real circuit court judges consider our divorce, equitable distribution and child custody cases, rather than having them heard by appointed commissioners because the courts don’t have the time for such tedious tasks.
If a criminal defendant is being held in jail pre-trial without bond, a bond hearing can be set within a day or two. For someone who may be wrongfully accused, this is critical. Otherwise, the defendant sits in jail for days waiting for a judge to work him into the schedule.
If there is a discovery dispute between parties in a civil case, it is relatively easy to get a circuit court judge to resolve the dispute in short order. If the parties need two hours for a hearing, our circuit court judges will accommodate them, and their arguments will be fully considered. If the parties to a dispute need more time to amicably resolve their differences, our judges encourage and facilitate the effort.
It’s all about accessibility to the legal system. This is not the case in many other jurisdictions around the commonwealth, where managing the docket ends up being the most important function of the judiciary. In some places the parties may get only 30 minutes on “motions day” to present complicated issues to the court. Discovery disputes may take months to sort out. And all of that will become the reality here should this cut in the number of judges become permanent.
But here is the good news: It doesn’t have to happen. Gov. Bob McDonnell has a unique opportunity to amend the budget bill and restore funding to fill the seats of the retiring judges. In presenting his transportation package, and in the negotiations that followed, McDonnell demonstrated the courage to think outside the box and, under the right circumstances, he showed that he will defy the ideologues in his own party in order to do the right thing.
Let’s help the governor do the right thing for the Roanoke Valley by contacting his office and expressing support for adding back the funding for the circuit and juvenile court judgeships in the 23rd Judicial Circuit. And while we’re at it, let’s tell our senators and delegates that we expect them to support the effort as well.
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