Friday, March 12, 2010

House budget courts judicial disaster

There are 19 vacant judgeships around the Commonwealth, including one at the Staunton General District Court and the Augusta County General District Court. The vacancy should have been filled during the 2009 session of the General Assembly, but political squabbles ended in a deadlock with no appointment. When a judgeship is vacant, the court has to rely on substitutes that can sometimes mean inconsistencies, delays, and other costs that can't simply be measured in dollars.
Now the budget crisis means that the vacancies will probably continue or even, as if by magic, disappear. Some of Virginia's busiest courts, including a big one in Fairfax and others in Hampton Roads, will take the hit. The House of Delegates proposes to eliminate the vacancies and the need to appoint new judges by simply eliminating the positions. Poof! No vacancy... no political fight... no cost (at least not in the budget). The House proposal goes even further by essentially eliminating any judgeships that become vacant over the next two years. The Senate budget keeps the positions funded.
If the House position prevails, the judicial system will have to shuffle the remaining judges around to provide judges for courts that have a vacancy... correction, lost the entire position. There will be travel expenses and other inefficiencies, and perhaps fewer court days meaning full dockets and justice delayed or even denied. There is simply no way that fewer judges will be able to handle the workload with the same care. The House proposal is a recipe for disaster, especially when you consider that many judges are eligible to retire and some may well do so rather than put up with a untenable workload. Of course, each retirement will leave another position unfunded and additional burdens for those who remain.
Hopefully prudence and common sense will prevail in the budget negotiations, although the more one sees of the House plans, the more one wonders if those are lost commodities around the State Capitol.

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