Efforts to reestablish a fourth Circuit Court judgeship in Loudoun County were bolstered last week by a new study that examined judicial caseloads throughout the commonwealth.
The report by the National Center for State Courts concluded that Virginia needs 28 more judges in its Circuit, District, and Juvenile and Domestic Relations courts—including one in the 20th Circuit that serves Loudoun.
Loudoun’s legal community pushed for several years to create the fourth bench seat because of the circuit’s heavy and complex caseload, finally gaining approval in 2015. However, through retirements and, last year, a funding cut, the full complement of seats has never been filled.
Last year’s General Assembly action—to not provide funding to replace retiring Judge Burke F. McCahill—caught Loudoun’s legal community and state delegation off guard.
The Senate Appropriations Committee relied on a 2013 caseload study to conclude that Loudoun could make do without a replacement. Under metrics used for that report, the need in the 20th Circuit—which includes Loudoun—was identified as just under 4.7 judges, including a judge dedicated to cases in Fauquier and Rappahannock counties. Members of the House agreed to round the number up to five; members of the Senate did not.
The Assembly had already questioned the underpinnings of that study and commissioned a new one in 2016. This time, the National Center for State Courts was charged with developing “a valid measure of judicial workload in all circuit and district courts, accounting for variations in complexity among different case types, as well as differences in the non-case-related responsibilities of judges in single-jurisdiction and multi-jurisdiction circuits and districts.”
That’s an approach that Loudoun Circuit Court Clerk Gary Clemens, Del. J. Randall Minchew (R-10) and others advocated.
Using a new weighted caseload formula, the 2017 report concluded that Loudoun—and Circuit Courts in eight other jurisdictions—need an additional judge.
“I am very optimistic that in 2018, we will prevail in the biennial budget and have a new circuit judge sworn in early July,” Minchew said. “This is great news for Loudoun and will also help use establish a drug court in Loudoun to help us battle the opioid crisis we are battling in our county.”
He’s already contacted the Loudoun County Bar Association to urge that Alex N. Levay be re-nominated to fill the open position. Levay had been poised to take McCahill’s seat in February—gaining endorsements from the local legal community and being declared qualified by the General Assembly—just before the Senate pushed to defund it.
Clemens said he was “cautiously optimistic” that funding would come through next year. “We still need to convince a few key senators that this is essential,’ he said.
He said getting through the year has been a challenge. The three sitting judges have worked well together to keep cases moving and attorneys have been understanding about scheduling expectations, often advising clients to seek out-of-court mediation rather than wait for court dates on civil matters. Also, a platoon of substitute judges have rotated through, with retired Loudoun Judge Thomas D. Horne often hearing cases several times a week. However, he said that effort isn’t sustainable and doesn’t address the community’s needs.
“It’s not fair to our citizens who are seeking remedies from the courts to wait more than a year,” Clemens said.