Chief Justice Robin Jean Davis
By CHIEF JUSTICE ROBIN JEAN DAVIS
CHARLESTON -- Every eight years "in the odd-numbered year next preceding the time for the full term election of the judges," the West Virginia Legislature "may rearrange the circuits and may increase or diminish the number of circuits" (Art. VIII ' 5).
While it is not mandatory that the Legislature realign or even examine the circuits, it is expected that this year the Legislature will study the number and locations of judges -- both circuit judges and family court judges -- in the State.
The circuit court districts have been realigned many times. However, since the family courts were just established in 2002, this year will see the very first study and potential realignment of the family court circuits.
A clear process has been established that will precede the 2007 Legislative Session. Each set of judges has an association, and each association has appointed a committee to make recommendations based on the judges' examination of the case numbers, the population, and the map of West Virginia itself.
These two committees will examine statistics provided through the Division of Criminal Justice Services and through each of the circuit clerks in the State to provide clear information about the different case loads in each circuit.
Population numbers will also be reviewed in relationship to the case loads. Since West Virginia has some extremely rural regions, the contiguity of the counties and the drive times between county seats will also be part of the analysis.
Furthermore, the Administrative Office of the Supreme Court will assist in a number of ways.
Administrative Director Steve Canterbury has assigned Deputy Administrative Director Kathleen Gross to provide counsel, coordination, and information for the two associations. Key to providing the information regarding case numbers is the Administrative Office's Director of Court Services Angie Saunders who works with the State's circuit clerks to glean information regarding cases and case loads.
Fortunately, the Administrative Office of the Supreme Court has received a grant from the State Justice Institute to pay for vital consultation services from an expert in the matter of judicial realignments. The consultant himself will be contracted through the National Center for State Courts.
He will look much more closely at the types of cases in each circuit during an involved delphi study wherein he will separate the kinds of cases and assess how much time each kind of case actually consumes.
For example, recently well-publicized flood litigation was before the court of Judge John Hutchinson in Raleigh County. This mass tort case was extremely time-consuming. During the time it took to bring that case to resolution, another judge in another circuit very likely resolved a dozen or more cases.
The delphi study will indicate that, in terms of the use of times, the one massive flood case equals several of another kind of case.
Likewise, in family court, one large money case can take as much time as dozens of pro se cases when no children are involved.
Here, too, the delphi study will determine the time-consumption per case and reach conclusions based on a fair appraisal of time-expenditures, not merely number of cases.
Thus, it is not simply population alone, it is not simply the numbers of cases, and it is not simply geography that will determine what the two associations recommend as the new circuit maps of West Virginia.
Ultimately, maps will be drawn by the two associations and their recommendations will be considered by the justices of the Supreme Court during one of the autumn Administrative Conferences.
The Court will receive the presentations by the respective chairs of the Judicial Association and the Association of Family Court Judges. If the Court agrees with the conclusions reached, then this will be noted and letters of endorsement will be sent to the legislative leadership.
In the unlikely event that one or the other of the two maps is rejected by the Court, then the Court will work with the association to develop a map with which all parties can agree, informing the legislative leadership of the Court's recommendation.
Then the entire process is in the hands of the legislators.
Administrative Director Canterbury and Deputy Director Gross will be available to answer questions from legislative committees or individual members of the Legislature as will, I am sure, members of the realignment committees who have worked so very hard to reach fair, clear conclusions.
Everything has been done in developing the process I have described to ensure a fair outcome. It is vital to the accountability of the entire judicial system to reach conclusions that are free of political or other kinds of influence and the process itself helps sanitize the outcome. The one clear goal throughout the process is to have a judicial system that serves West Virginians in the best possible maps of circuit court circuits and family court circuits.
After all, justice must not be denied West Virginians in any form -- even geographically.