Manchin vetoes bill adding six circuit judges

By Chris Dickerson | Apr 4, 2007


CHARLESTON -- West Virginia's circuit court system will remain as is, at least for now, after Gov. Joe Manchin on Wednesday vetoed a bill that would have added six judges.

The legislation, Senate Bill 400, "fails to give adequate attention to the allocation and distribution of judicial resources throughout our State, instead confining its focus on the NUMBER of circuit court judgeships," Manchin said in written comments explaining his reasons for vetoing the bill.

The administrator of the state Supreme Court said he was disappointed Manchin vetoed the bill.

"I've talked to the leaders of the Judicial Association, and they all have expressed that disappointment," Steve Canterbury said Thursday. "It's regretful that some of the hardest working judges in circuits with the biggest dockets will continue to be overworked. We have to continue to do more with less, something the court has been doing for a long time."

Canterbury did note that this is the first time a governor has ever vetoed judicial realignment in the history of the state. But he said the Court wouldn't push for a special session to address the issue.

"It's entirely the Legislature," he said. "We just provided information. We did the best we could do. It's their constitutional prerogative. The judiciary cannot create its own map."

Lara Ramsburg, spokeswoman for Gov. Manchin, said Thursday that the issue might be taken up in a special session this year.

"If the Legislature can come to an agreement and can tell the governor they want to move forward with a bill that does these things, he will consider putting it on a special session," she said.

In his veto message, Manchin said the Legislature also should have redrawn circuit boundaries to ease the caseloads of some judges and to reflect shifting population trends. He cited House Bill 3106, a similar bill that focused on the state's family court system. He signed that bill Wednesday, adding 10 family court judges to its system.

"By failing to fully account for the resources of the existing circuit court system," Manchin said the circuit court bill "may compromise a more productive and efficient future for the state's legal system and, in turn, her economy and people."

Canterbury said he was happy Manchin signed the family court bill.

"We could not be more pleased with the outcome of the legislative process with the family court realignment bill," he said. "It didn't solve all of the problems, but it certainly took a huge swipe. What it means for West Virginians is quicker court dates to hear their family matters. It also will mean a less rushed procedure to give them adequate time to present their cases."

Wednesday was the deadline for Manchin to either sign or veto legislation or allow bills to become law without his signature.

"Although I support taking the steps necessary to maintain an independent and efficient judicial branch, I must object to this legislation," Manchin said in his veto message. "To truly maintain and protect this co-equal branch of government, the State must be cognizant of the demands on the judiciary that threaten its ability to resolve cases in a just, effective and efficient manner.

"'Adequate resources are essential and without delay while also delivering quality service to the public,'" Manchin said, quoting the National Center for State Courts' Circuit Court Workload Assessment prepared for the Supreme Court of Appeals last year.

That report calculated the workloads of circuit judges across the state, figuring in a variety of factors such as travel time between courthouses in the circuits. The judge with the highest workload, according to the study, was Wayne Circuit Judge Darrell Pratt. It said Pratt's workload is equal to that of 2.09 judges.

"As the NCSC observed, to ensure that such adequate resources are provided, the State must periodically make two critical assessments: first, a determination of 'the number of judges required to handle the caseload;' and second, an examination as to 'whether judicial resources are allocated equitably across the State," Manchin wrote. "To truly prepare the judicial branch for the challenges of the 21st century, the results of these two assessments must be considered – and ultimately implemented as public policy – collectively."

Manchin said the Legislation should have been more like the family court bill, which did redraw circuits of the relatively new family court system.

"According to the NCSC study, the state's current need was estimated to be 57 family court judges – an increase of 22 positions over the existing complement the 35 family court judges" Manchin wrote. "However, by also considering modifications to the family circuit boundaries and realigning seven counties into newly comprised circuits, the Legislature was able to confine this increase to just 10 additional family court judges."

Unless Manchin addresses the topic during a special session by Dec. 31, the circuit court system will be unchanged for next year's elections.

"By failing to simultaneously consider modifications to the existing circuit boundaries, the bill misses an opportunity to address the systemic and organizational efficiency of the court system, one that is based on case loads, modern transportation routes, and shifting population trends," Manchin wrote.

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.

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