Canterbury

CHARLESTON -- Two bills –- one adding three circuit judges and another allowing judges to pull jurors from neighboring counties in certain cases -– continue to move through the legislative process.

Senate Bill 291 would add three circuit judges -- one in the 24th Circuit (Wayne County), one in the 9th Circuit (Mercer County) and one in the 22nd Circuit (Hampshire, Hardy and Pendleton counties). After passing the Senate, it was sent to the House of Delegates.

It was scheduled for a second reading on March 6, and likely a third reading on March 7, the day before the Regular Session concludes.

"There isn't a single change from the Senate version so far," state Supreme Court Administrator Steve Canterbury said Thursday. "If that holds, then it's on its way."

Canterbury said Kanawha County Delegate Ron Walters on Wednesday tried to add another judge for Kanawha County during a House Finance Committee hearing, but that amendment was defeated on a voice vote.

"We're very pleased that the Judicial Association has stayed supportive, and that's been helpful," Canterbury said. "The Governor was encouraging and heartening, too. He recognized there are some circuits that are overwhelmed."

Those circuits in the bill were three of the top four listed in a report in late 2006 completed by the National Center for State Courts. The report found that the lone judge in the 24th Circuit (Wayne County) does the work of 2.09 judges. The second busiest judge is in the 30th Circuit (Mingo County), which has the workload of 1.88 judges. The judges in the 9th Circuit do the work of 1.77 judges each, and the judge in the 22nd Circuit does the work of 1.64 judges.

A bill in last year's legislative session adding six circuit judges -- including the three in the current bill -- made it to Gov. Joe Manchin's desk. But he vetoed it in April, saying it failed "to give adequate attention to the allocation and distribution of judicial resources throughout our State, instead confining its focus on the NUMBER of circuit court judgeships."

Another bill that already is on its way to Manchin's desk is Senate Bill 311, which would allow judges to pull jurors from neighboring counties in mass litigation panel cases. The bill originally was drafted to include all civil cases, but the committee eventually amended it to involve just MLP cases. It also was modified to demand that jurors be pulled only from contiguous counties.

"These cases are often the most publicized cases in the state," Canterbury said. "They affect many, many people. That alone means there is a great deal of interest. They come, typically, from many counties. It's not just one county where the judge happens to sit. It's very hard to find jurors for those cases. First, there are so many connects to the plaintiffs. Second, there's so much pre-trial publicity.

It passed the House on Wednesday.

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