CHARLESTON – The days of Democratic or Republican judges in West Virginia are over.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has signed House Bill 2010, which requires the elections of justices of the West Virginia Supreme, circuit court judges, family court judges and magistrates be nonpartisan and by division.
That means in the next judicial elections in 2016, there will no longer be party primaries. All judicial candidates will be on the ballot in the spring primary, and winners will be determined then. The candidates will not be affiliated with parties.
And, when the 2016 election rolls around, there will be four new circuit judge and two new family court judge positions on the ballots across the state.
State Supreme Court Administrator Steve Canterbury said the Legislature enacted HB 2010 to respond to critics who don’t like elected judges or partisan judges. There still will be elections, but lawmakers took a step to minimize the amount of money that would be poured into these elections.
Canterbury noted that the West Virginia Judicial Association didn’t take a stand one way or the other about idea. But he said that as the administrator of the court system, he sees a few benefits of the new law.
“Administratively, having the election is May is extremely helpful,” he said. “It gives us time to get newly elected judges time to have some real judicial education before they’re on the bench.”
Currently, new judges are sent to the National Judicial College in Reno, Nevada, for training. But because of the current system of judges being elected in November and taking the bench on Jan. 1, there is little turnover time.
“We always give them a mini course, if you will,” Canterbury said. “And we send them to Reno to school. Bu often, they’ve already on the bench for a few months by the time they can get out there. That now won’t be an issue.
“And in the interest of decency, this new law gives judges who lose an election time to transition from the bench. Basically, as an administrator, it’s extremely desirous.”
And because of two other bills signed into law, there will be more judicial seats on ballots across the state.
Tomblin also has signed Senate bills adding circuit judges and family court judges.
SB 415 adds an additional circuit judge in four circuits across the state. SB 479 adds an additional family court judge in two family court circuits.
Canterbury said the Legislature can realign judicial circuits every eight years in the session a year before elections for circuit and family judges.
“They can add judges anytime,” he said. “But they only can add circuits, take away circuits, redraw circuits or take away judges every eight years.”
This year, like it has since the 1990s, the state Supreme Court contracted with the National Center for State Courts for a case-weighted study of workloads for the circuit and family court judges across the state.
Factors that are used include the types of cases that are being considered by the judges and travel time for judges in multi-county circuits.
“Population also is a factor, but not a pure driver,” Canterbury said. “You look at cases filed. It’s not simply population. And then, there’s the continuing growth of the eastern Panhandle. Simply put, they have needed more judges as the population grows there.”
The NCSC studies rate the workloads for each judge, and come up with a number. The ideal number is one, as in one judge is doing the work of one judge.
Most of the judges across the state, Canterbury said, had ratings of 1.2 or so. That means one judge is doing the work of 1.2 judges. However, some were much higher. A handful of circuits had judges with ratings of 1.5 or higher.
“The Legislature and its leaders worked on this problem,” Canterbury said. “They were great to work with on this issue.
The 26th Circuit of Lewis and Upshur counties, for example, currently has one Circuit Judge in Jacob Reger. His rating was 1.81, so a judge is being added there.
The 5th Circuit of Mason, Jackson, Roane and Calhoun counties has two circuit judges with ratings of 1.76, so it is getting a third judge.
The 10th Circuit is Raleigh County. The three judges there have a rating of 1.74 each, and it is getting a fourth judge.
The 23rd Circuit includes Jefferson, Berkeley and Morgan counties in the eastern Panhandle. The five judges there had a rating of 1.49 each. But because of the continued growth in the area, the Legislature is adding a sixth judge in that circuit.
Canterbury noted Circuit Judge Alan Moats of the 19th Circuit of Taylor and Barbour counties. His workload rating was 1.59.
“But Judge Moats said if we added another judge there, they wouldn’t be working as much as anyone else in the state,” Canterbury said. “So he said he didn’t want that. He felt strongly about it, so the Legislature said OK.”
The same study was used for the family courts.
There were two circuits – the 6th Circuit of Cabell County and the 23rd Circuit of Hampshire, Mineral and Morgan counties in the eastern Panhandle – with ratings of 1.5 or so each. So both of those family court divisions will be adding a new judge in 2016.
Canterbury said his office received a State Justice Institute grant to pay for half of the NCSC studies, which cost about $50,000 each. And he said the costs of adding the new judges is about $480,000 per circuit judge and about $250,000 per family court judge. Plus, he said there are some other setup costs, too.
“The legislative staff and our court staff did a great job eight years ago reworking the map for the family court judges,” Canterbury said, singling out Division of Legislative Services Director Tina Payne.”The work they did eight years ago when we added 10 family court judges and redrew the maps showed this year when we only had to add two judges. They proved their worth.”