Judiciary committees get to work on circuit, family court plans

By Steve Korris | Jan 26, 2007



CHARLESTON – Leaders of the judiciary committees at the West Virginia Capitol have split the work of choosing the right number of judges for the state's courts.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeffrey Kessler of Glen Dale will take up a workload study estimating that the state needs 11 and a half more circuit judges.

House of Delegates Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Carrie Webster of Charleston will take up a workload study estimating that the state needs 22 more family court judges.

"We decided to divide the work load. That way there will be no duplication of effort and we can put in more in depth work," Kessler said.

Webster said, "There is no dispute that there is a need for more judges, but how many can we afford?"

She said each additional family court judge would cost about $250,000, and each new circuit judge would cost more than $300,000.

Those costs include staff, rent and other expenses.

Consultants at the National Center for State Courts prepared the workload studies for the Supreme Court of Appeals. The Justices submitted the studies to the Legislature, not as recommendations to hire specific numbers of judges but as guides in setting priorities.

According to the consultants, the burden on family court judges weighs more heavily than the burden on circuit judges. The consultants estimated that each family court judge carries enough cases to keep 1.6 judges busy. To give each family court judge a proper workload, they wrote, the state would have to increase their number from 35 to 57.

The consultants estimated that the average circuit judge carries enough cases to keep 1.2 judges busy. To give each circuit judge a proper workload, they wrote, the state would have to increase their number from 66 to 77.5.

Adding judges might involve drawing new circuit boundaries. If the current legislative session does not draw new lines, current boundaries will remain for elections in 2008.

For family courts, the workload study presents an opportunity to evaluate changes that West Virginia voters approved in 2000.

Voters amended the Constitution to allow the Legislature to create a unified family court system staffed by family court judges.

Prior to the amendment, family law masters heard family cases and made recommendations to circuit judges.

In 2001, the Legislature created 26 family court circuits with 35 judges holding power to make decisions in their own right. In 2002, voters picked family court judges in partisan elections for six year terms.

The Legislature provided that starting in 2008, family court judges would run for eight year terms on the same cycle as circuit judges.

Kessler led the Senate Judiciary Committee as it shaped the changes in 2001.

"We attempted to raise the stature of the judicial process in family matters," he said. "It has worked out excellent.

"There was an obvious need due to the complexities of cases. You have half of all marriages ending in divorce. Most folks' experience with the courts will be in family courts. They deserve a fair process that meets their needs in a timely manner.

"They may be disgruntled but they should at least say, when my case was put on the docket it was handled in a timely manner. There is more turmoil and more friction if we don't deal with them effectively and efficiently.

"I think you will see an increase in family court judges. I don't think we are really in position to approach the numbers we are looking at."

Webster said, the family court system has been "overwhelmed for a number of years."

"It is difficult to get hearings because emergency issues take precedence on the family court docket," she said. "Family court needs to be more family friendly. I'm not saying the report proves the need. We reserve the right to look at other data."

The reports look like rocket science in places. They carefully estimate the number of minutes a judge spends on each kind of case.

The report on circuit judges estimates that in a year they spend 3,184,529 minutes on civil cases and 1,041,484 minutes on felonies.

Webster said she assigned an attorney to review the family court study.

"I haven't hunkered down and analyzed it," she said.

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