Judge shortage slows down courts

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - To cut costs last year, the General Assembly put a freeze on hiring judges. That left 29 open judgeships across the state. Cases started backing up and many courts slowed down. Now they're hiring again. But that may not fix the problem for long.

Attorney Irving Blank has been seeing a slow down in court.

"What I saw personally were cases being delayed," said Blank.

As President of the Virginia State Bar Association, he's heard from other attorneys, too. "Anecdotes of delay, inability to get into the court."

The General Assembly decided not to fill 29 judge vacancies last year to save money. That piled up cases on existing judges, including some in Richmond, Henrico, and especially the Tri-cities, where one judge took on the cases of two.

"That court was already one of the heaviest volume juvenile domestic relation courts in the state and losing that judge put them way above everyone else," explained Karl Hade, Executive Secretary of the Virginia Supreme Court, which oversees the court system.

Retired and substitute judges were called in to help, though many don't like working for the lower substitute wage, sometimes $200 a day. And that meant changing faces behind the bench.

"So let's say you were going for a case, and you pleaded him one day, then it was continued to another day and another judge would pick up the case. There was no continuity," said Blank.

This year, the General Assembly provided money to fill 21 of 29 open judgeships. That will relieve some of the shortage. But there are at least 8 more judges that are planning to retire. Add to that the fact that the courts have been asked to study the idea of condensing from 31 districts down to as few as 19, which could result in fewer judges.

The idea could save the state millions, as circuits would be redrawn based on population and judges could be shared. Blank, who's on the committee to study the idea, says it could work if caseloads are balanced.

"When you don't have that, then the whole democratic system starts to fail and sort of crumble and that's what was happening," said Blank.

The General Assembly appointed judges last week to fill 17 of the vacancies. Those judges will begin hearing cases July first.

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