“Case Load” Stats Short-change NoVA Courts — and how we change that

On Monday, December 17th, the Governor unveiled some holiday stocking stuffers to the General Assembly “money” committees, i.e. the Senate Finance and House Appropriation members.

On balance, the Governor played Santa Claus, handing out surplus-derived treats for certain selected agencies.  (He also gave us his annual equivalent of the ugly red sweater — with a budget amendment to shift General Fund money to transportation).

One of the Governor’s gifts was an announcement that funding would be restored for new judges in fifteen Virginia courts, including five in circuit court, eight in general district court and two in juvenile and domestic relations.

(Quick note:  Circuit Court is the court of plenary jurisdiction in Virginia, meaning it has original jurisdiction over all civil and criminal cases within a selected group of localities.  From that, General District Court is carved out to handle smaller cases, i.e. misdemeanors and civil cases under $25,000 in value.  Meanwhile, Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court handles issues relating to children, which are confidential).

The Governor’s amendment to hire more judges is a good one.  But the target is way off.  Despite the fact that northern Virginia is continually gaining in population and commerce, it did not gain a single position from the “fabulous fifteen.”  In fact, it stands to lose judges as retirements leave judicial positions that are unfilled.

(For example, Fairfax County Circuit Court judges Leslie Alden and Marcus Williams both retired in 2012, bringing Fairfax down to 13 full-time judges — its lowest level in twenty years.  Neither position has been filled).

The Governor’s staff (and the budget writers in Richmond) will undoubtedly say that there is no bias in the system. Instead, the allocation of judges strictly follows a formula which reviews how many cases each judicial district handles each year.

But there lies, damn lies and statistics.  Let’s see how this works:

First of all, all civil cases are not created equal.  An uncontested divorce and a million-dollar trade secrets case (with a two week jury trial) each add up to “one case.”  But the judicial resources required are strikingly different, from the time of filing to the final resolution.  Some of the largest companies in the world (AOL, Shell, Lockheed Martin) are located in northern Virginia, which brings large cases along with it.  Yet these cases are counted as if they were a no-fault divorce.

Secondly, and more pertinently for the “numbers” crowd, judicial districts count criminal cases in different ways.  In northern Virginia, courts assign a case number to each defendant, no matter how many counts are charted.  Other courts downstate count each charge as a separate case.  Therefore, the latter court will handle “more cases” — although the actual work load is no different.

When you change the formula  to reflect that reality (civil cases + criminal defendants/number of judges), the results suddenly shift.

Of the top six “busiest” courts in the Commonwealth, four are located in northern Virginia (Alexandria, Prince William, Loudoun and Fairfax) under the new formula.  The other two (Portsmouth and Virginia Beach) are located in Hampton Roads.  Many of the “needy” judicial districts receiving judges under the Governor’s plan are way down the list.

What difference does this make?

It makes a lot.  In Fairfax, the quality and speed of our judicial system makes it unique in comparison to many other jurisdictions (notably the District of Columbia)  You can file the most complicated civil case in Fairfax and still have a jury trial within 12 months.  That’s a great benefit, especially to a pro-business state.

Fewer judges now means a longer wait for justice, whether it’s paying a traffic ticket or getting a divorce.  It also means higher costs since defendants are held longer before trial.

The General Assembly has to approve the Governor’s funding for new judges (and where the money goes).  For years, we have been told that these decisions are driven by “the numbers.”  No, actually it’s politics — just like everything else in Richmond.

Let’s hope the NOVA delegate focuses on this issue in the 2013 session.  Because once it gets attention, things are going to change.




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