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Additional judiciary required in region

January 5, 2012
John Doyle , Shepherdstown Chronicle

Caseloads for circuit judges in the Eastern Panhandle have increased to the point where it's obvious to me that we need at least one more. Meanwhile, I think Jefferson County needs another magistrate.

Our local judicial circuit presently covers Jefferson, Berkeley and Morgan counties and has five judges. Jefferson County has three magistrates. I think the numbers need to be six and four respectively.

Population figures show that the average circuit judge in West Virginia serves about 28,000 people. According to the 2010 census our circuit has a population of about 175,000. So the five judges in our circuit serve on average 35,000 souls. Adding one would mean our six judges would serve 29,000 people on average. I think there is a good chance to get the sixth judge we need during the upcoming regular session of the Legislature.

If we are able to get this sixth judge for our circuit I think we should seriously consider breaking our circuit into two circuits. The soonest this could be accomplished would be 2016, which is when circuit judges are next up for election. Normally any reorganization of circuits is done in the year before circuit judge elections, which in this case would be 2015.

The two circuits I propose would be a two-judge circuit covering only Jefferson County and a four-judge circuit covering Berkeley and Morgan counties.

Jefferson County's 2010 census population of 53,500 is only 2,500 people short of the 56,000 average for two judges. By the 2016 election we'll be past the 56,000 mark. Morgan County's 17,000 or so population is too small for even one judge, or I would suggest it be given its own one-judge circuit (meaning our existing circuit would be divided into three smaller ones).

I support this idea because I'm convinced that having too many offices on the ballot means that each office does not get enough attention from the voters. Voters only have so much time they can devote to studying candidates and making up their minds. Every additional office on the ballot means less time available for all the other offices.

It wouldn't be so bad if judicial elections were "staggered" (not all elected at the same time). But the West Virginia Constitution dictates that all circuit judges be elected for eight-year terms at the same time. This makes for a woefully long ballot in that particular election year.

If my suggested change is adopted by 2015 the voters of Jefferson County will only have to study the candidates for two circuit judgeships, not six. The voters of Berkeley and Morgan counties would only have to study the candidates for four such judgeships, not six.

Jefferson County has had three magistrates for quite some time. I know them all and I know they have a difficult time managing their caseloads, which are overly large per magistrate compared to most other magistrates in West Virginia.

Jefferson is right on the cusp of qualifying, by both population and caseload, for an additional magistrate. Again, we continue to grow, so we'll soon hit the magic number in each category.

Circuit judges are elected by "division," which means that each person running for judge must declare for a particular seat. The highest vote getter in each division wins the seat. Magistrates, however, run in a "pool." However many magistrates a county is authorized, the top vote-getters down to that number are elected. I think magistrates should be elected in divisions, just like circuit judges.



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