Too Many Judges in Virginia? Report says, “Too few.”

By Cory Bilton


In 2011, Virginia Delegate Bill Janis wrote, “In too many courthouses we have, as my old chief would say, ‘too much glass for the job.’”  He was referring to having too many judges in Virginia.  That year, Janis introduced HB 1990, which intended to reduce the number of judges in Virginia from 403 to 384.  An identical bill was proposed in the Senate, SB 1240.  While the House version passed 52 to 46, the Senate version ended with a decision to have the Virginia Supreme Court study the issue before the Senate would decide.

That study, titled the Virginia Judicial Workload Assessment Report (“Workload Report”), was released on November 15.  It concludes that there are too few judges in Virginia, not too many.  The study was performed by the nonprofit National Center for State Courts (NCSC).  Between May 2012 and October 2013, the NCSC studied, surveyed, and gathered data from various courts within Virginia.  The study’s conclusions paint a picture of a judicial system that is short-staffed and struggling to keep up.

Not Enough Glass for the Job

Virginia has three types of judges: Circuit Court Judges (for larger civil cases and criminal felony cases), General District Court Judges (for smaller civil and misdemeanor cases), and Juvenile and Domestic Relations Judges.   The Workload Report concludes that Virginia needs 13 more Circuit Court Judges than it currently has.  Out of 31 judicial circuits, 16 need at least one additional Circuit Court Judge (while 7 circuits could get by with one less judge).  Likewise, Virginia is short 17 Juvenile and Domestic Relations Judges (15 districts need more, 2 could get by with less, 14 have the right number).  Regarding General District Court Judges, the Workload Report concludes there are 3 too many.  Where Janis’s bill suggests reducing the number of Virginia judges by 19, the Workload Report suggests that Virginia actually needs to increase the overall number of judges by 26.

You Thought You Were Busy

The Workload Report tabulated the total number of case filings statewide.  In 2012, there were 349,589 cases filed in circuit court, 2,321,985 cases filed in General District Court, and 488,732 cases filed in Juvenile & Domestic Relations District Court.  To find out how much time judges typically spend on each case, the NCSC had all the judges record their time for a five week period in the fall of 2012.  The NCSC crunched the data and came up with the number of minutes spent on each type of case (they called this “Case Weight”).  A few highlights from this list:

Type of Case                                                   Minutes Spent per Case

Capital Murder                                                            750

Felony (Non-Capital)                                                 40

Contested Divorce                                                     116

Civil Case (Intermediate Complexity)                 68

Traffic Infraction                                                         2

Custody and Visitation                                               19

Landlord / Tenant                                                       2

This is the total time the judge spends, on average, on each type of case.  This includes face-to-face time with the lawyers and parties, but also time that the judge spends researching the issues, writing opinions, and taking care of case administration.  Personally, I’m amazed that these numbers are so low.  Many lawyers are familiar with billing time in 6 minute increments (1/10th of an hour), but evidently for Virginia Judges, two minutes is the normal increment.

Can Virginia Courts Do More With Less?

In the Richmond Dispatch article quoted above, Bill Janis also said, “I am forced to look systemically at the hard data that reflect the resources, staffing, budget and caseload of every court in each circuit in every region of the commonwealth.”  The Workload Report provides hard data showing that reductions to the population of Judges in Virginia will force judges to spend too little time on the matters before them.  After reading the report, it is hard to make an argument that we need fewer judges, or that judges should be doing more with less.  Two minutes per case is hardly enough time to say more than a few words or to read a two-page document.  (It’s definitely not enough time to do both those things.)  Additionally, Virginia spends only about 1% of its budget on the court system.  So a modest reduction in the number of judges will have a negligible impact on the overall budget.  Meanwhile, having fewer judges will delay or deny justice for every citizen of Virginia.

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