Valley Courts Must Hire, Fund, Divvy Replacements for Retiring Judges
Shenandoah Valley courtrooms that hear thousands of cases a year need new judges on the bench. There's no shortage of candidates, but finding the money to hire them may be a challenge.
Court clerks in Waynesboro, Staunton and Rockingham County are working to get substitute judges filling in for a pair of retiring barristers. The bar association hopes that only lasts a few months.
The alternative, they say, would restrict access to justice. The retirement of Judge William Heatwole could mean a long wait, especially for civil cases.
"When you need it, it's nice to actually have some access to justice, as opposed to sitting for long periods, waiting for your case to be heard," said Eric Laurenzo of the Augusta Bar Association.
The Augusta Bar Association interviewed candidates for Heatwole's seat, and the circuit court judgeship for Waynesboro and Staunton. The bar found four applicants highly qualified, but now it's up to the General Assembly.
The governor's recommended budget includes money for a new circuit judge, but not one for the lower courts, despite a docket of roughly 51,000 cases.
"The battle will be, everybody feels like they need a judge and we'll have to justify our caseload numbers and the fact that we serve an area that's a little bit unique," said Delegate Dickie Bell (R) Staunton.
Heatwole covered courts in Waynesboro and Rockingham County, leaving two different circuits scrambling to schedule substitute judges. Attorneys say fill-ins can create a challenge for them and their clients.
"There's different presentation methods that different judges want to see, and it makes it very difficult to provide the court with what they want when you're not sure who you're talking to," Laurenzo said.
Though the position's not funded now, Bell is confident the General Assembly will hire a new judge for the valley. The Augusta County Bar Association wrote a letter to Governor Bob McDonnell, urging him to reconsider funding for the vacant district judgeship.
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