CHARLESTON -- Rock singer Meatloaf once said two out of three ain't bad.
That must be how state Supreme Court Administrator Steve Canterbury was feeling after talking to the state Senate Finance Committee on Feb. 19.
Answering questions about three bills before the panel, Canterbury seemed cautiously optimistic about two of the proposed pieces of legislation.
Those two would add three circuit judges across the state and would allow circuit judges to draw jurors from neighboring counties in certain cases.
Senate Bill 291 would add three circuit judges –- one in the 24th Circuit (Wayne County), one in the 9th Circuit (Mercer County) and one in the 22nd Circuit (Hampshire, Hardy and Pendleton counties). It now is on the Senate floor for reading.
Those circuits were three of the top four listed in a report in late 2006 completed by the National Center for State Courts. The report found that the lone judge in the 24th Circuit (Wayne County) does the work of 2.09 judges. The second busiest judge is in the 30th Circuit (Mingo County), which has the workload of 1.88 judges. The judges in the 9th Circuit do the work of 1.77 judges each, and the judge in the 22nd Circuit does the work of 1.64 judges.
A bill in last year's legislative session adding six circuit judges – including the three in the current bill – made it to Gov. Joe Manchin's desk. But he vetoed it in April, saying it failed "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."
So, officials went to work on it again this legislative session.
"The Judicial Association met and felt that if the judge wanted assistance, then they would do their best to endorse and work with the Legislature to try to advance the addition of a judge in each of those circuits," Canterbury said. "Judges (Alan) Moats and (James) Mazzone met with Governor (Joe) Manchin and pleaded the case. The governor indicated to them that he would be in support of those three additions because the judges had asked for assistance."
Moats is the president of WVJA, and Mazzone is the chairman of the group's legislative committee.
Canterbury heaped praise on the judges in those three circuits: Darrell Pratt in the 24th, Donald Cookman in the 22nd and Derek Swope and John Frazier in the 9th.
"The work … it's a lot on them," Canterbury said. "They're doing a good job of keeping their dockets clear, but it's a lot of work. A lot of 12-hour or more days."
"We just need some help," he said. "It's become worse and worse. It was busy in 1997 when I took office, and we've continually increased the caseload. I thought it was manageable if I got some help eventually. But it takes its toll after a while. You're just hearing cases from day to day.
"There have been many nine- and 10-hour days. Every Friday is that way. We're seldom out of here before 6 on Fridays. That's the busiest day. That's when I do the abuse and neglect and juvenile hearings."
Pratt said he also understands why Manchin vetoed the bill last session.
"The governor was being fiscally responsible," Pratt said. "I can't disagree that realignment might be needed sometime. But we need help right now."
Another bill Canterbury is hopeful about is Senate Bill 311, which would allow judges to pull jurors from neighboring counties in mass litigation panel cases.
The bill originally was drafted to include all civil cases, but the committee eventually amended it to involve just MLP cases. It also was modified to demand that jurors be pulled only from contiguous counties.
"The problem with pulling a jury pool is expanded dramatically in these cases because they're so well publicized," Canterbury said. "They sometimes have a hard time finding people who don't have preconceived notions.
"It has been a really gargantuan struggle to get jurors in some cases. The transportation reimbursement may be more on some of these cases if jurors from other counties are used, but not necessarily. That depends on where the county seat is located, how close to a county border it is and how close jurors from other counties live to the courthouse."
Like the judges bill, it also advanced to the Senate floor.
The third bill that didn't have as much success is Senate Bill 310, which would have equalized magistrate pay across the state.
Currently, magistrates in the 21 least populated of the state's 55 counties make $43,625 annually. Magistrates in the other 34 counties make $50,000.
"With this two-tier system, it sometimes creates a lot of professional issues," Canterbury said.