Loudoun’s legal community could be getting some much-needed relief, as Governor Terry McAuliffe’s proposed biennial budget, introduced Monday, provides $288,822 to fill an empty seat on the Circuit Court bench.
Loudoun lost a judge from the 20th Circuit last year when, during the vacancy caused by the retirement of Judge Burke F. McCahill, the General Assembly stripped funding for that seat. That caused immediate outcry from Loudoun’s legal community and representatives in the General Assembly, but Loudoun’s delegation at the time was unable to budge the Senate Appropriations Committee.
That 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.
When the two chambers’ budget bill came to conference, funding for that seat was removed.
But advocates for Loudoun’s legal system have argued that local courts face much more complex cases than they used to, or than many other parts of the state.
“Twenty years ago, a standard Loudoun County case would be Farmer Joe v. Southern States Cooperative,” said state delegate and local attorney Randy Minchew (R-10). “Now it’s Orbitak ATK v. Northrup Grumman—slightly more complicated.”
Since losing that seat, a number of substitute judges have rotated through the court, with retired Loudoun Judge Thomas D. Horne often hearing cases several times a week.
The Assembly had already questioned the underpinnings of that caseload study and commissioned a new one in 2016 by the National Center for State Courts. That study, using a new weighted caseload formula, concluded that Loudoun and eight other Circuit Courts need an additional judge.
If Loudoun wins that funding, it could also open up the opportunity for a new drug court, a special program to divert drug offenders away from jail and into treatment and intensive oversight. The drug court program, once abandoned in Loudoun, has found renewed support, but is very time-intensive for judges. It has been pointed to as another tool to combat on ongoing opioid and substance abuse crisis—a crisis McAuliffe brought up in his speech introducing the new budget.
The legal community already has a person in mind for a black robe: Leesburg attorney Alex Levay was last year nominated by the Loudoun County Bar Association and certified by the House Courts of Justice Committee. He had been poised to take the seat until funding was stripped away. Minchew said that makes him the only attorney certified as a judge who is not actually serving as a judge, and has already pushed the local Bar to re-nominate him and get him re-certified this year.
But Minchew, who will step down from his seat in January after losing in the 2017 elections, said Loudoun’s Circuit Court isn’t out of the woods yet. There remain some other courts that are granted more seats by law than are funded in the budget. And the General Assembly could take that funding for Loudoun back out again.
“All the courts in Virginia, we can fund with one half a day of Medicaid,” Minchew said. “That funds every single judge at all levels in Virginia. It’s not that big in the grand scheme of things, so why not fund the entire judiciary and allow people access to justice and have our laws construed in a timely fashion?”