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State Supreme Court to look at judicial boundaries

Hearings Set

The committee has scheduled a series of public meetings designed to gather input for the study. Meetings are scheduled as follows:
• Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Virginia Highlands Community College, Abingdon
• Monday at 6 p.m. at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College Parham Road Campus, Richmond
• July 13 at 7 p.m. at George Mason University, Fairfax
• July 14 at 7 p.m. at Tidewater Community College, Portsmouth Campus, Portsmouth
• July 18 at 6 p.m. at Blue Ridge Community College, Weyers Cave
• July 21 at 6 p.m. at Danville Community College, Danville

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Committee appointed to study lines

By Alex Bridges -- abridges@nvdaily.com

As Lady Justice tries to balance her scales, the Supreme Court of Virginia now hopes to do the same with caseloads across the state.

The state's highest court plans to do so among the local judges by redrawing the judicial boundaries for the first time in 40 years.

The state Senate Courts of Justice Committee has asked the Supreme Court of Virginia to review and recommend changes to the existing boundary lines for the judicial circuits and districts, including the number of judges designated to serve in each area, according to a news release issued last week by the Office of the Executive Secretary.

In response, the Supreme Court appointed a judicial boundary realignment study committee to make such recommendations, the release states.

How a new map would pan out for the 26th Judicial Circuit remains unknown, but area judges have complained for years of the growing number of cases facing their courts. Similar concern comes at the general district court level, with judges handling dockets from the morning until long past closing time at 5 p.m.

"We, in the legislature have recognized for some time that judicial case loads around the state are unbalanced and there are judges in some parts of the state that never have an afternoon docket, and then there is our area where our judges ... are on the bench, morning and afternoon, five days a week," said Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, who serves on the House of Delegates Courts of Justice Committee. "So there is that imbalance that exists and we know it exists, and we have been trying to persuade the Supreme Court to take some action as far as the balancing of caseloads, and really these judicial circuits need to be redrawn from time to time, and so we found ourselves in a position of really getting that ball rolling."

Legislators did not intend for House Bill 1990, sponsored by Del. Bill Janis, R-Glen Allen, to serve as the final word in how the judicial circuits would appear, according to Gilbert. Delegates approved the bill 52-46 in February. The Senate referred the legislation to its Courts of Justice Committee, where members left it, but also sent the letter to the state Supreme Court.

That proposal called for the designation of a new 7th District and Circuit, both of which would consist of the cities of Harrisonburg, Staunton, Waynesboro, and Winchester and the counties of Augusta, Clarke, Frederick, Highland, Page, Rockingham, Shenandoah and Warren.

The bill also had proposed decreasing not only the number of judicial districts and circuits, but also would have increased the number of vacant judgeships across the state, according to Katya Herndon, director for the department of legislative and public relations for the Office of the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court of Virginia.
Gilbert noted the proposed shifting of the boundaries as listed in the bill no longer apply now that the study has begun. But he expressed hope that the study would balance caseloads among the available judges.

"We want to make sure that if there are places that have too many judges and they have too little caseload we certainly don't want that to be the case," Gilbert said. "Part of the way to alleviate that is by reconfiguring the circuits to make sure that the judges that aren't working as hard can be put into a circuit where they can take some of the burden off judges that are working extremely hard."

The realignment does not necessarily correspond with the current effort to fill judge vacancies, according to Gilbert. Neither Gov. Bob McDonnell nor the General Assembly have chosen a full-time replacement for Judge John R. Prosser, who retired from the Frederick County bench March 1. Retired judges and those currently sitting in other courts have stepped in to temporarily fill the vacancy in the 26th Judicial Circuit.

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