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Sun Gazette: Arlington Could Find Itself With Unfillable Judicial Vacancy Print

by SCOTT McCAFFREY, Staff Writer

© Created: Wednesday, January 5, 2011 7:39 AM EST

Without General Assembly intervention, Arlington and Falls Church are likely to see the ranks of Circuit Court judges fall by 25 percent this year.

Judge Benjamin Kendrick is set to hit the mandatory retirement age of 70 during the year, but he won't be able to be replaced due to a moratorium on filling vacant Circuit Court judgeships across the commonwealth.

An increasing number of judicial vacancies is an issue that is drawing concern within the legal profession across all corners of the commonwealth. Efforts last year to provide the needed funding - or raise the retirement age of judges to 73 - failed in the legislature.

Age 70 is "such an arbitrary number," said Del. Patrick Hope (D-47th), speaking Jan. 4 at the Arlington County Civic Federation's annual legislative hearing. Hope said he may press for legislation to allow judges to stay on for several extra years.

Last year, a measure to raise the retirement age passed the state Senate, but was defeated in the House of Delegates. Gov. McDonnell's proposed budget amendments for the coming session include some funding to pay for new judges.

The 17th Judicial Circuit, which includes Arlington and Falls Church, currently has four judges: Kendrick, Joanne Alper, James Almand and Chief Judge William Newman Jr. It hears some civil cases and has jurisdiction over all felonies and some misdemeanor charges.

In Virginia, judges are elected by the General Assembly or, if the legislature is not in session when a vacancy occurs, can be appointed temporarily by the governor. There are 31 circuits totaling 120 different courts across Virginia, and judges serve for eight-year terms unless they run up against the retirement age.

Most states have mandatory retirement ages for judges, but the federal government does not. U.S. District Court Judge Wesley Brown, a Kansas jurist, is still issuing rulings at age 103 - after 48 years on the bench (he was appointed by John F. Kennedy). And he's not yet the record-holder: A federal Court of Appeals judge was 104 when he died in 1977.

At the Civic Federation forum, legislators also expressed concern that the General Assembly might try to combine smaller circuit courts in an effort to save funds. Del. Adam Ebbin (D-49th) said there was some talk of combining the 17th Circuit with Alexandria's circuit court, which has three judges.

Ebbin said he would oppose the idea.

"These communities are different," he said.