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When judges retire, positions are held vacant until governor, General Assembly act to fill them

By Kali Schumitz

Staff Writer

Retirements have created judicial vacancies in the Fairfax court system and, unless additional state funding is identified, those positions will remain vacant.

The Fairfax Bar Association is leading an effort to get the Virginia General Assembly to fund the judge positions, saying that the courts will not be able to keep up with the current caseload if those positions are not filled.

Due to the state budget challenges in recent years, when judges retire, their positions are held vacant until the governor and the General Assembly act to fill them.

Fairfax will very soon have two vacancies each at both the Circuit Court and General District court. “It’s already having an impact,” said Jay Myerson, a local trial attorney and president of the Fairfax Bar Association.

Cases are already being scheduled for later dates because of the reduced numbers of judges, he said.

Fairfax has a strong track record for hearing cases within a year, which some say could be harmed by a slower judiciary. It will also have a negative impact on the business community, Myerson said.

There are also additional pressures facing the General District Court. Last year, the General Assembly expanded the court’s jurisdiction to include certain types of protective orders.

“These are not five-minute matters,” said Aaron Christoff, another Fairfax Bar Association member who spoke to the county’s General Assembly delegation at a public hearing Saturday. “These are hour-long matters, they are day-long matters that have never before existed and have added to the court’s workload.”

In addition, the General District Court handles traffic cases. The opening of the 495 Express Lanes is expected to add thousands of new traffic cases per month starting later this year, Christoff and Myerson said.

Another concern is that several other Fairfax judges are approaching retirement age.

“I am very concerned about burnout,” Myerson said. “You have 13 judges carrying the workload of 15 judges.”

Gov. Robert McDonnell (R) has included funding to fill 15 other judge positions around the state in his proposed budget amendments but did not include any funding to fill the Fairfax vacancies.

Fairfax Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Dist. 34) said he will introduce a budget amendment for about $500,000 to fill two of the Fairfax vacancies, one in the General District and one in the Circuit Court.

“We had 15 judges a couple years ago, and we’re as busy as ever,” Petersen said. “The population of the county has been steadily growing. ... We can’t go below 14; it’s just not feasible.”

Part of the issue is that the vacancies that get filled are prioritized based on caseload statistics, Petersen and Myerson said. Different jurisdictions have different methods for how they count cases, which can skew the statistics.

Petersen believes he and other local legislators can convince the assembly to fund the additional positions, given that it is a relatively small amount of money in the context of the budget and that there is a demonstrated need.

“The bottom line is that the governor found money for 15 additional judges around the state and he didn’t find money for Fairfax,” Petersen said. “Fairfax representatives have to step up and speak out.”

kschumitz@fairfaxtimes.com