Realignment study details busiest circuit judges

By Chris Dickerson | Nov 10, 2006

CHARLESTON – Wayne County's circuit judge is the busiest in the state, according to a study that could result in changes to the state's circuit court system.

The study, completed by the National Center for State Courts, found that the lone judge in the 24th Circuit (Wayne County) does the work of 2.09. The second busiest judge is in the 30th Circuit (Mingo County), which has the workload of 1.88 judges.

State code states that 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"

The Administrative Office of the Supreme Court received a grant from the State Justice Institute to pay for the study by the NCSC, which is considered an expert in judicial realignments.

The study looked at several factors, according to Supreme Court Administrator Steve Canterbury.

"They examine the amount of work per judge," he said. "They look at workload, not just population or the number of cases. They look at the types of cases the judges are handling. Some complex cases can take more time than dozens of other cases.

"They also take into consideration the drive time involved for judges in the more rural circuits."

At last month's annual meeting at Oglebay Park in Wheeling, the circuit judges' Judicial Association unanimously approved the results of the NCSC study. That sent it to the state Supreme Court justices, which approved it 4-0 with one justice not voting, Canterbury said.

Now, it awaits action from the state Legislature which goes back into regular session in January.

"The judicial association basically is asking the Legislature to accept their report," Canterbury said. "This group does these studies for various groups around the country."

The study recommended that there be no changes to circuit boundaries and that there be no decrease in judges in a circuit, Canterbury said.

The study does not explicitly suggest the addition of circuit judges. But if the Legislature does opt to add judges, Canterbury says the study suggests that lawmakers follow the list of circuits with the most need. That list is topped, of course, by the Wayne and Mingo circuits.

"Basically, the Legislature has the power and control whether to add judges and do any realignment," Canterbury said. "It all has fiscal impact and is not to be taken lightly.

"But if the Legislature does decide to add judges, here is a list of the 11 circuits with the greatest need."

Canterbury said the Judicial Association doesn't think the Legislature will add 10 or 11 judges, adding that the association simply hopes the lawmakers "just follow the pecking order" if they do add any judges.

The realignment must be completed before the 2008 election. During that election, voters will elect two Supreme Court justices, 66 circuit judges and 35 family court judges.

A similar study of the family court should be done within the month, Canterbury said. Since the family courts were established in 2002, this will be the first study and potential realignment of the family court circuits.

When new legislative leadership is determined, Canterbury said he will write letters to them and to Gov. Joe Manchin informing them of the study and its recommendations.

Chief Justice Robin Jean Davis previously spoke of the importance of the potential circuit court realignment.

"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," Davis wrote earlier this year. "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."

Having been in his current job just over a year, Canterbury said he has high respect for the state's judges.

"One of the issues that I think is true in West Virginia is the vast majority of elected officials take their job seriously," Canterbury said. "Other states have more funding and more support staff for judges.

"But I honestly believe we have more hard-working judges than in most trial courts in the nation."

The state's busiest circuits

Here is a list of the busiest circuit court judges in the state, according to a study by the National Center for State Courts. The entries include the circuit and its county/counties, how many judges are in the circuit and how much work each judge does in comparison to other circuits.

24th (Wayne) 1 judge, 2.09 judges

30th (Mingo) 1 judge, 1.88 judges

9th (Mercer), 2 judges, 1.77 judges each

22nd (Pendleton, Hardy and Hampshire), 1 judge, 1.64 judges

13th (Kanawha), 7 judges, 1.39 judges each

5th (Mason, Jackson, Roane, Calhoun), 2 judges, 1.36 judges each

23rd (Morgan, Berkeley, Jefferson), 5 judges, 1.34 judges each

26th (Lewis, Upshur), 1 judge, 1.33 judges

10th (Raleigh), 3 judges, 1.3 judges each

19th (Taylor, Barbour), 1 judge, 1.3 judges

27th (Wyoming), 1 judge, 1.3 judges

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