The Virginia General Assembly, after months of negotiating, has passed a budget that expands Medicaid in Virginia—and funds 31 authorized but unfunded judgeships across the state, including one in Loudoun Circuit Court.
The state budget now includes $8.4 million in fiscal year 2020—which begins July 2019—to fund all 435 judgeships authorized by state law, including the 31 Circuit District, and Juvenile and Domestic Relations Courts that are authorized but unfunded in the proposed biennial budget. That includes a seat on the 20th Circuit Court bench in Loudoun, which was left empty in 2017 when the General Assembly voted during a vacancy on the bench to remove funding for one judge.
It is the most expansive funding in terms of judgeships offered up in years.
“This is the first time that we are actually going to fund all the judgeships that we’ve authorized under the code, so it’s a good thing for the judiciary throughout Virginia and for everybody who has to litigate within the judiciary,” said state Sen. Jennifer T. Wexton (D-33), a Leesburg attorney. She said the funding will help move cases through the court system more quickly and give courts the resources to stand up more special programs like drug courts in under-served areas.
The vote comes amid a General Assembly special session that lasted well beyond the legislature’s normal meeting calendar. The House of Delegates and Senate initially passed radically different budgets—the House expanding Medicaid into Virginia, and the Senate refusing to do so—and were until today unable to reconcile the two.
The funding bill passed today in both chambers is based on a compromise negotiated between two Republican committee chairmen, Sen. Emmet W. Hanger Jr. (R-24), co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee; and Del. S. Chris Jones (R-76), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. It lays out a path to Medicaid expansion incorporating a training, education, and employment requirement and a tax on private acute care hospitals to help fund the state’s costs. Debate in the Senate was largely between Republicans on either side of the vote, including a debate between Hanger and his finance committee co-chair, Williamsburg Sen. Tommy Norment (R-3), that continued through the vote.
The bill preserves the $900,000 each year included in the introduced budget for additional mental health dockets and drug court programs, an issue that local Loudoun legislative and judicial leaders have pushed. Loudoun leaders have said a drug court program—whereby some drug offenders get a chance to avoid jail time after violating probation by going instead to an intensive outpatient treatment program—may be impractical without more help on the bench. The drug court program can be very time-intensive for judges, who keep close supervision over the people taking part.
Loudoun’s legal community had pushed for several years to create a fourth bench seat because of the circuit’s heavy and complex caseload, finally gaining approval in 2015. But that was taken away again after the retirement of Judge Burke F. McCahill. The Loudoun Bar Association had nominated—and the General Assembly had declared qualified—Leesburg attorney Alex N. Levay to take McCahill’s spot on the bench. With no judgeship awaiting him, Levay continued his private practice.
Last year, a report by the National Center for State Courts concluded that Virginia needed 28 more judges in its Circuit, District, and Juvenile and Domestic Relations courts—including one in the 20th Circuit that serves Loudoun.
The bill implements the Affordable Care Act in Virginia by covering all adults up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, estimated at 300,000 people. Those above the federal poverty level—this year set at an annual income of $25,100 for a family of four—would pay premiums on a sliding scale. In so doing, it also opens Virginia up to greatly expanded federal funding.
“Not only will we provide lifesaving coverage to more than 300,000 Virginians, including almost 10,000 residents in the 10th Congressional District who desperately need it, we will return millions of taxpayer dollars back to Virginia’s economy,” Wexton said in a statement.