A stroke of the pen by the budget czars in Richmond will have long-lasting impacts here in Loudoun.
The elimination of a Circuit Court judgeship will not just return Loudoun’s courts to the near-gridlocked status that existed before a fourth bench seat was created three years ago to help handle the growing caseload; it will be far worse.
The caseload has only increased in those ensuing years. In fact, the court today is a lot closer to needing five judges to keep the docket moving than it is to being able to get by with just three. This month alone, the docket has three weeks set aside for jury trials in two murder cases. That leaves two judges available to do everything else. Before a recent plea agreement, the docket also had a week-long trial set in a fatal stabbing case—one that would have overlapped with a murder trial, leaving just one judge free to handle all the other cases.
That may be an extreme example of the court’s schedule, but it certainly illustrates the challenges judges, prosecutors and attorneys face to ensure criminal defendants are afforded their constitutional guarantee to speedy trials. While they are attempting that, civil cases involving divorce petitions, contractual disputes or personal injury cases, among others, will wait.
That’s not a hypothetical scenario. That’s what was happening in 2013 and 2014 before a fourth judgeship was added. Caseloads were lighter then than now.
The General Assembly’s action to reduce Loudoun’s judiciary by 25 percent with the admonishment that all courts will just have to endure a bit of belt-tightening is reminiscent of the years-long debate over transportation funding. Downstate legislators didn’t have a context to understand the extent that commuter congestion threatened to undermine the economic growth that was fulling the commonwealth’s budget coffers. Similarly, ensuring Loudoun residents can get their day in court is a fundamental responsibility of the state government.
A key difference is that on the transportation front, Loudoun taxpayers stepped in to contribute tens of millions of dollars to get the roads fixed. That’s not an option in the courtroom.
Nor should it be. On a per capita basis, Loudoun already sends more money to Richmond than any other county. That certainly should be enough to keep the wheels of justice moving better than this.