By Joe Beck
Throngs of witnesses, defendants and victims packed elbow to elbow in courtrooms throughout the Northern Shenandoah Valley provide vivid anecdotal evidence of the heavy caseload borne by the area legal system.
Workdays for lawyers, judges and court support staff that sometimes stretch past 6 p.m. are another indication of a system under strain.
Now a report ordered by the Virginia Supreme Court at the behest of the General Assembly has added reams of data to the mounting anecdotal evidence that the judicial caseload may be far over its capacity.
The study, issued in November by the National Center for State Courts, found that the 26th Judicial District needs six more judges to effectively handle its caseload.
The district, encompassing Warren, Frederick, Shenandoah, Page, Clarke and Rockingham counties and Winchester, needs three more judges in circuit court alone, almost one-fourth of the total of 13 extra circuit court judges recommended for the entire state in the report.
The General Assembly has to approve the creation of new judgeships and the money to pay for them, something that Del. C. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, said he doubted the legislature will do, at least in the numbers called for in the report.
Gilbert, who also practices law throughout the district, said he has had a close look at the "extreme need" for more judges and the difficulty in gaining approval for them in the General Assembly.
"These issues, of course, are questions of resources," Gilbert said. "I think it is probably unlikely the legislature will go as far as the study suggests it should go, but I believe our area has one of the extreme needs anywhere in the commonwealth.
"In terms of workload, our judges are pretty much swamped."
Still, Gilbert said he welcomes the study's conclusions as powerful evidence in making the case for a few more judges.
"I'm quite hopeful the study puts us at or near the top of the wish list as to who may first get additional judgeships," Gilbert said. "I'm not sure how many and at what level. I certainly think some relief is coming. I just don't know to what degree."
The study also called for one additional judge among the general district courts in the district and two more for juvenile and domestic relations.
Timothy Coyne, the head of the public defender's office in Winchester, said the shortage of judges creates a special hardship in winter when judges sometimes have to travel in bad weather to conduct hearings in courtrooms scattered around the district.
Coyne's own office covers the same area as the 26th district, except for Rockingham County.
"I know it adds to our workload, and I know it adds to the court's workload when they have to do that," Coyne said of the wintry commute on treacherous roads.
Neither Gilbert nor Coyne had a ready explanation for why the sparsely populated 26th district has a bigger deficit in judicial caseloads than more urbanized areas of the state.
"It is my understanding in some areas of Virginia there are general district court judges who do not have afternoon dockets, and every one of our general district court judges has a docket every day or close to everyday, and certainly that imbalance shouldn't exist," Gilbert said.
Coyne said the heavy workload in the general district courts, which handle the vast majority of traffic cases, doesn't surprise him.
"We've got a lot of interstates and major thoroughfares coming through our area," Coyne said. "That generates a lot of cases. I think it would help our general district courts immensely if they added one judge."
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org