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Washington Examiner: Arlington seeks more judges, warns of court backlog Print


Created: Wednesday, March 14, 2012  18:35

Arlington County officials are warning that the county faces courthouse gridlock unless the Virginia General Assembly agrees to fund at least three additional judges. State lawmakers have said Arlington needs only two.

Because of two retirements last year, there are only two judges left to hear cases in the 17th Judicial Circuit, which serves both Arlington County and Falls Church. Another judge is set to retire in May, but both the state House and Senate have opted to fund just two of those positions for next year's budget, said state Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington.

State lawmakers argue that the number of cases in Arlington should require only two judges, Hope said, but he and court officials believe that the nature of cases in the 17th Circuit require at least three judges. Lawsuits in Arlington's business community -- rife with powerful defense contractors and big businesses -- tend to be complex, costly and time-consuming, involving multiple law firms and attorneys and reams of documents for the court to sift through, said Paul Ferguson, Arlington's clerk of court.

More than 80 percent of Arlington's court cases are felonies -- the highest percentage in the state -- and trials often span several days or even months, tying up judges, Ferguson said. If the county had only two judges instead of three in the past year, each would have handled 2,422 cases, Ferguson said. That's far more than the average 1,837 cases handled by circuit court judges across the state, according to 2009 data, the most recent available.

Arlington lawyers say funding a third judge would help alleviate expected congestion in the circuit court.

"Prolonged delays in access to the court system have financial costs and increase the anxiety of clients, and those costs, although you can't put a financial number to them, are even more serious," said Jay Burkholder, the president of the Arlington County Bar Association.

Hope and other members of Arlington's General Assembly delegation are trying to convince the legislature to fund a third judge, at a cost of $150,000 to $160,000 per year, or at least leave open the possibility of funding it later.

"It's just a funding issue. It comes down to money. There's no jurisdiction that has an excess amount of judges," Hope said."Every jurisdiction is having this kind of trouble, and you're in a position where you need to prove you need to fill that spot."