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Sun Gazette: County Officials Aim to Keep 4th Judgeship Alive, if Not Filled, in 2013 Print


Created:  Friday, August 24, 2012  5:00AM


Having succeeded in wringing election of two new Circuit Court judges from the parsimonious grip of their General Assembly colleagues, members of the Arlington legislative delegation now will have to address a proposal that likely would close the door on restoring a fourth judgeship to the 17th Circuit.

Awaiting action when the legislature reconvenes in January is a bill, considered in the 2012 session but eventually held over to 2013, that would formally eliminate the fourth (and currently unfunded) judgeship on the 17th Circuit to make way for a new judgeship on the 15th Circuit, which runs from Stafford County down to the Richmond suburbs.

The measure passed the House of Delegates but then stalled in the state Senate, as Sens. Janet Howell (D-32nd) and Dick Saslaw (D-35th) convinced colleagues to delay final action for a year.

Howell's district includes parts of Arlington, while Saslaw's includes all of the city of Falls Church – the two components of the 17th Circuit.

Members of the Arlington legislative delegation acknowledge that the 17th Circuit does not now need four judges. But they contend that the complexity of cases the court deals with means that simple math equations shouldn't determine the number of judges that are required. And they are hoping that a comprehensive study of judicial workload across the commonwealth proves the point.

"I'm confident the study that comes out later in 2013 will reconfirm that the numbers alone warrant three judges, but they will also tell us how complex and time-consuming these cases really are – and whether perhaps a fourth judge is needed," said Del. Patrick Hope (D-47th).

That's the same view of Clerk of the Circuit Court Paul Ferguson.

"I'm hopeful that, in future years, Arlington's statistics will justify funding the fourth slot again," Ferguson told the Sun Gazette.

The timing of the study, and the brisk pace of the 2013 legislative session, may mean the issue gets pushed back another year, until 2014.

"I still believe a fourth judge is needed, and the study will give us the proof we need," Hope said. "The study will likely tell us where some jurisdictions may have too many judges."

The House of Delegates' vote to strip one judge from the 17th Circuit passed unanimously, including support from the four delegates representing parts of Arlington. Hope said their votes represented acknowledgement that based on caseloads alone – "which is our only measurement at this time" – only three judges are warranted.

"The numbers are what they are," he said. "We didn't agree to moving it to two, which is where we were headed, because we know there is just no way we can function with two judges. And there is no way in heck we would vote for that."

The retirement of Joanne Alper in late May reduced the ranks of Arlington's Circuit Court judges to Chief Judge William Newman Jr., who was assisted by a number of substitute judges. Two other judges – Benjamin Kendrick and James Almand – had retired in 2011 and were not immediately replaced.

In July, the court welcomed Dan Fiore II and Louise DiMatteo, who had been elected in the 2012 General Assembly session to eight-year terms.