West Virginia Record

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Family court judges need help, report finds

By Steve Korris | Jan 19, 2007

CHARLESTON - West Virginia's overworked family court judges need help - about $5 million worth of help.

The National Center for State Courts estimated in a November report that the average West Virginia family court judge carries a load heavy enough for about 1.6 judges.

State courts administrative director Steve Canterbury said, "One point six and up is pretty darned burdensome."

The report found enough work for 57 family court judges. The state has 35 family court judges in 26 circuits.

The report declared, "All circuits are inadequately staffed."

Canterbury said each new judge would cost about $238,000 a year. He said each one would need a case coordinator, a secretary-clerk, a courtroom and offices.

At $238,000 apiece, 22 new judges would cost $5,236,000 a year. Family judges are paid $82,500 annually, a figure Canterbury said is the lowest in the nation for such a job.

The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals delivered the National Center for State Courts report to the Legislature, but not as a recommendation.

For legislators, the report will serve as a guide in their first evaluation of family courts that they created six years ago.

Canterbury said, "We are talking to legislative leaders about whether we will go about this and how we will go about this."

He said, "They will give as much help as they can afford. I believe at the end we will have a better system."

Twenty-one years ago, West Virginia treated family matters like crimes and civil suits. Circuit judges handled divorces and domestic disputes.

Changes began in 1986, when legislators created positions in circuit courts for 14 full time family law masters and 13 part timers.

Masters made no decisions. They recommended actions to circuit judges.

Legislators in 1999 created family courts within circuit courts and approved 33 full-time positions for family law masters.

Legislators directed the Supreme Court of Appeals to hire 20 case coordinators for mandatory parent mediation and education, with a clerk for each coordinator.

In 2000, West Virginia voters amended their Constitution so legislators could create a unified system of family court judges with power to make final decisions.

Legislators followed through in 2001, creating 26 family court circuits with 35 judges. They drew circuit boundaries that did not match those of circuit courts.

As a temporary measure, they authorized the governor to appoint all 35 judges.

Legislators set partisan elections for family court judges in 2002, with six-year terms.

Terms would increase to eight years starting in 2008, putting family court judges on the same election cycle as circuit judges.

Legislators authorized appeals from family courts to circuit courts. They authorized direct appeals to the Supreme Court of Appeals if both sides preferred that.

Since then, the number of new family court cases has increased each year. The number of modifications of previous orders has increased each year.

Now an opportunity arises for legislators to adjust to the growing case load.

They can draw new boundaries and add judges, draw new boundaries with the same number of judges, preserve boundaries and add judges or leave everything as it stands.

To guide legislators, the Family Court Judges Association created a redistricting committee. Judge William "Chip" Watkins of Putnam County leads it.

At the committee's request, the Supreme Court of Appeals hired the National Center for State Courts to study the work load in family courts.

Canterbury said the center's consultants needed help calculating the travel time of judges in rural circuits.

He said, "They thought 60 miles equals 60 minutes."
The center's report stated that, "The challenge is to provide judges sufficient time to reasonably engage litigants, listen to petitioners, clearly explain rulings and orders –- features fundamental to the public perception of fairness ..."

The report estimated that an average divorce with children takes 234 minutes and the average child support case takes 139 minutes.

The authors tactfully wrote, "Essentially, there is a balancing act that must be played out between ideal case weights and the political landscape."

Canterbury called it a question of judicial temperament.

He said, "There are a lot of emotional demands on them. Nobody wins in family court."

He said he has heard of friendly divorces, but he called them rare. He said, "Even the least contested, emotion free case, there is still a little bit of a contest."

He said some judges work 12 hour days.

He said, "The state could probably use the 22 additional judges, but can the state afford the 22 additional judges?"

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West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals