Loudoun County could lose its two longest serving Circuit Court judges this year and the problem facing the local judiciary isn’t just finding qualified replacements—it whether the General Assembly will provide funding needed to retain three judgeships.
Judge James H. Chamblin will retire April 1 after 25 years on the bench. Judge Thomas D. Horne, the commonwealth’s longest-serving Circuit Court judge with 31 years of service, turns 70 this year and faces mandatory retirement Dec. 1. The third Loudoun Circuit Court judgeship is held by Burke F. McCahill, who was first appointed in 2000.
Although some members of Loudoun’s General Assembly delegation were gearing up an effort to add a fourth Loudoun-based judgeship to handle the county’s growing caseload, they are now fighting to keep enough funding to support three. At risk is funding to keep Horne’s bench active during the final seven months of the FY14.
Del. Randy Minchew (R-10), who sits on the House’s Courts of Justice Committee, has been leading the effort in Richmond to get money for the judgeship built into the biennial budget, which runs through July 1, 2014. He put in a request for continued funding with the House Appropriations Committee, but found out earlier this week there is a slim chance the money will be there.
“When I heard that, I hit the roof,” he said Wednesday. “I told them that is unacceptable. I want funding so we can appoint a judge who can put on his or her black robe Dec 2, 2013.”
A judgeship position cost the state $260,000, and Minchew has requested just more than half that to cover the position through next fiscal year.
The assembly is on track to elect a replacement for Chamblin.
Members of the Loudoun Bar Wednesday heard brief presentations from five candidates for the post and voted on whom to endorse. The top vote getter was William H. Atwill Jr. who has practiced as a litigator in Loudoun since 1990. Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephen E. Sincavage got the second highest number of votes. Also putting their hats in the ring are Leesburg Town Attorney Jeanette Irby, former Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Lorrie Ann Sinclair and Assistant Loudoun County Attorney Zaida C. Thompson.
Looking ahead to December, some in the legal community hold out hope that Horne can stay on the bench. A bill approved by the Senate Jan. 25 and under review Monday in a House subcommittee would raise the mandatory retirement age from 70 to 73.
Cheryl Graham, president of the Loudoun County Bar Association, said there are real concerns for the county’s justice system if Horne’s position cannot be filled immediately upon his departure.
“I think a lot of people think this is a lawyer issue. But it is not a lawyer issue; it is a public issue,” she said. “It is hard already to get on the docket.”
Not everyone is getting their day in court, particularly in civil and domestic cases since criminal cases take precedent because of statutory deadlines for legal actions. Anecdotally, several Loudoun attorneys noted they often advise clients to settle civil cases rather then go through the expense and time required to get on the docket.
Graham said the inability of judges to find time to take up non-criminal cases can have life-changing impacts. She pointed to an instance where a mother sought legal help after the father of her twin babies took them to another jurisdiction and would not bring them back.
“We could not even get an emergency hearing,” she said. “It took days to even get a 10-minute scheduling hearing. That was just to get on the docket for a hearing.”
Graham said it was frustrating not to be able to do anything to speed up the process to help her client.
In 1996, Minchew, as the president of the Loudoun County Bar Association, helped convince lawmakers Loudoun needed a third circuit court judge. Seventeen years later, the county’s population has more than doubled to nearly 350,000 residents. Minchew fears that if the Circuit Court is forced to make do without a third judge for seven months, the General Assembly ultimately would drop the position. He saw that scenario play out in Roanoke.
“They had a vacancy and were told you can live without it for seven months,” Minchew said. “When the budget came back up again, they found themselves without a judge.”
Graham said there are concerns for Loudoun’s judicial system if Horne’s position is not filled.
“I think the case can be made for four judges,” Graham said. “So to leave us with only two would be very difficult.”
She acknowledged it would only be a matter of months between Horne’s retirement and when the funding would be available for a new judge in 2014, but said the situation in Loudoun would only become worse.
“You’re going to see the backlog get so bad [in those months],” she said.
Graham encouraged people to reach out to state legislators immediately to explain the importance of a third judge in Loudoun County Circuit Court, noting again how important this issue will be to members of the public who need access to the justice system. “It is really about people,” she said.