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Arlington Connection: Merged Justice Print


Created: Thursday, December 15, 2011

Alexandria and Arlington currently have two separate court systems. That may change in the near future as members of the General Assembly consider reorganizing the court system to save money and reallocate the workload for judges.

The effort to merge the two Northern Virginia court systems began quietly last year, when Del. Bill Janis (R-56) and Sen. John Edwards (D-21) introduced legislation that would have merged the courts for Arlington and Alexandria. The discussion took place against a backdrop of a Circuit Court vacancy in Alexandria, which some members were reluctant to fill because they were advocating merging the two courts.

That issue was resolved when members decided to ask the Supreme Court of Virginia to conduct a review, which was recently released. That report dismisses the idea of merging the courts in favor of creating an overlay that would move judges from overworked courts to ones with fewer actions.

"I don't think overlay is going to work," said Del. David Albo (R-42), chairman of the Courts of Justice committee in the House of Delegates. "I just don't think the courts are going to say, 'Oh you can take our judge.' It's not realistic."

Now, members of the General Assembly are preparing for another session just as two more vacancies have opened in Arlington, one on the Circuit Court and another on the General District Court. The Circuit Court was already down a judge before the retirement of Judge James Almond, so a consensus seems to have already developed to fill that position. But with money tight and efforts to reorganize the court still lingering, the effort to fill the seat of retiring General District Court Judge Dorothy Clarke may end up being an uphill battle for the Arlington delegation.

"I'll be fighting to fill both of the positions," said Del. Patrick Hope (D-47). "The caseloads warrant that these positions be filled."

THE EFFORT TO MERGE courts in Virginia goes back many years. Before the current discussions in Richmond, the last time it was seriously debated was during a reorganization of the court system in the 1970s. At the time, some were eager to merge smaller courts such as Arlington and Alexandria so that the circuits would be more similar in size. But the Byrd machine, which had dominated Virginia politics for 50 years, opposed the move because much of the organization's power flowed through the court system.

"The Byrd machine, or what was left of it at the time, was solidly against any kind of effort to merge the courts," said retired Judge Daniel Fairfax O'Flaherty. "They liked things the way they were."

The machine got its way, although the organization soon fell from power. In recent years, legislators in Richmond have been wondering if the caseloads in Arlington and Alexandria really warrant two separate courts. But a review of caseload data is difficult for a number of reasons.

"People tend to file a lot more pro se diverse cases in Alexandria rather than Arlington, for example," said Hope. "And then there a number of ways the courts tend to record cases that creates a problem when comparing one circuit to another."

For example, some courts count child custody hearings as one continuous case beginning with a divorce. Other courts close the divorce case and open new custody cases. As a result, the Supreme Court has embarked on a study to determine a "weighted court average" to determine which courts are overworked and which ones can handle an increased load. That study isn't expected until next year, when the debate about merging Alexandria and Arlington's court system is likely to erupt again.

"We've been lobbied heavily by judges and attorneys about this," said Del. David Englin (D-45). "The overwhelming consensus is that combining the two courts would be a bad idea, so I'm inclined to vote against it."

IN THE MEANTIME, Arlington has two vacancies in the upcoming General Assembly session. Members say the Circuit Court vacancy is certain to be filled because that court is already down one judge. But the General District Court vacancy may not be filled this session because other courts also have vacancies to fill. And with the effort to merge Arlington and Alexandria still floating around in the General Assembly, spending money on a position that could be eventually vaporized could be perceived as a waste of money.

"The numbers say that Alexandria is busy, but my eyeballs tell me that Alexandria isn't busy at all," said Albo. "But we don't want to take action on what my eyeballs are telling me, so we'll wait for the numbers to come out."