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Budget Cuts Could Cost Arlington, Falls Church Half Their Circuit Court Judges

Four-judge court could be reduced to two come July 1.

The 17th Judicial Circuit, which includes Arlington County and the city of Falls Church, is likely to lose half of its Circuit Court judges as the state General Assembly .

Such a move would reduce the traditional four Circuit Court judges here to two, increasing the case load for the remaining judges, likely slowing down the case flow and putting the brakes on a plan to implement drug court here.

"As far as the administration of justice and the completion of cases, it's really very problematic," said Commonwealth's Attorney Theo Stamos.

Stamos, Arlington County Sheriff Beth Arthur, Arlington County Police Chief Doug Scott and the Arlington County Bar Association have been lobbying for at least three judges here.

"It's a problem throughout the commonwealth," Stamos said. "There's been this tug-of-war over the size of the judiciary. The politics of it escape me, but apparently it's highly political. But Republicans and Democrats ought to be able to agree that a functioning judiciary is a key component to a functioning society. And when you have a 50-percent reduction in your felony trial court, that's a problem."

When a judge retires, the common practice in Virginia in recent years has been to freeze the position. Judge Benjamin Kendrick retired in early 2011 after turning 70 years old, the mandatory retirement age. Judge James Almand retired Dec. 31, creating a second vacancy. And Judge Joanne Alper has announced she will retire at the end of May.

The prevailing thinking among local law enforcement officials and the county's legislative delegation is that at best the state will fill only one of those vacancies, leaving Arlington and Falls Church with only two judges.

"We are a smaller jurisdiction, but we are reasonably busy. And because of the sophistication of the business community in Arlington, as a consequence our civil cases are fairly complex. Likewise, for criminal cases we have a high percentage of felony cases, which are more complex," said Jay Burkholder, president of the Arlington County Bar Association.

"This will slow things down tremendously from our perspective."

Such delays mean it will take longer for cases to go to trial -- and longer for them to be heard.

Felony cases comprise more than 80 percent of Arlington's criminal docket, the highest in Virginia, according to a memo from Clerk of Court Paul Ferguson.

Further, civil cases heard here include construction law, real estate, wills with multiple heirs, medical malpractice, contracts and personal injury matters with damages exceeding $1 million, the memo states. "These types of high dollar cases generally raise more complex legal issues and involve multiple law firms and attorneys" and are work-intensive on the judicial side, according to Ferguson.

Because of this, most cases don't complete in one day.

State Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, said the matter was "still very fluid." He was optimistic that the state Code of Laws will at least provide for three judges in the 17th Judicial Circuit, though he wasn't as optimistic when it comes to funding the third slot.

The state has agreed to a two-year study to determine how many judges are needed here, he said.

"I don't mean to downplay this. This is concerning. We're relying on retired judges to come in and take up the slack. We really do need a third judge. We need to convince the General Assembly that if ever there were an occasion, we definitely need a third judge," Hope said.

"Just about every jurisdiction is in our situation, in that they are working very hard, and spending a lot of long hours. So, there's no surplus of judges out there. So, whenever there's a retirement, and you have to replace a judge, everyone's going through the same situation as we are. And they're desperate."

State Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, said legislators are working hard to get funding for a third judgeship.

"It's all about money," she said. "There's no hidden agenda, no hidden message, no slapping our hand. It was all about money."

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