The Administrative Office of the Virginia Supreme Court, and I would suspect the Administrative Office of any state court system, is usually concerned when the legislature is in session. There is always the normal and natural concern about the funding that the legislature makes available to run the court system, the number of judicial positions in the different communities that the legislature would create to do the work of the courts, and, in some states, the retention of current judges or appointment of new judges for the available judicial positions.
Virginia does not have public election of judges. The judiciary is elected or appointed by the legislature for terms established by the law. In some states such as Maryland, however, once the governor appoints a Circuit Judge, he or she is then subject to a retention election within a prescribed period of time.
The other area of concern that court systems have is what laws will the legislature pass and what impact will they have on the functioning of the court system. Will a new law create more litigation or establish programs or services that will divert cases from the court system? An example of a law that should reduce case filings in Maryland addresses juvenile delinquency matters of a less serious nature that will be diverted from court filings to services for pre-teens that are found to need them.
While such legislation has the potential to reduce the number of cases being filed in court, it also has the potential to increase the caseload of the state child serving agencies that will impact their budgets, staffing, and available resources. It also has the potential to send children and families to state and local agencies that are not currently working collaboratively or are not interested in working collaboratively. That may create more challenges than solutions. This is particularly important on the Eastern Shore where too many services and resources are already limited and collaboration among state agencies, nonprofits, and local services could be improved. I learned at a recent online seminar that there are no shelter care (unlocked) facilities for youth on the Eastern Shore, and they are needed as some foster parents are reluctant to take some youth into their homes.
Many of the laws that legislatures enact and governors sign have gone through a review process and consideration by panels of experts who have done the homework required to ensure that many, if not all, of the concerns of cost, staffing, efficiency and effectiveness have been evaluated. There are some laws, however, that we found in Virginia came because of an incident that happened in a community where the person involved knew the legislator who had sufficient influence to pass a law that would impact how the court system in the entire state would work. As a result it created confusion among the different courts on how to address both the issue presented but also how the court needed to respond to the new law.
The one example that comes to mind is a law that required that the Clerks of Court could not provide legal advice to citizens that came to any of the courts for assistance. On the surface it would appear obvious that non-lawyers should not give legal advice. The challenge for the Clerks of Court in each jurisdiction was that there was no uniform definition or understanding of what “legal advice” was. Would giving a citizen a form to file a claim and describing how to fill it out be legal advice or helping with the efficient administration of the court system? The law did not say. The clerks of court did not have direction.
The issue had arisen in a small jurisdiction that had only the one complaint to the local legislator but resulted in impacting the entire court system as the Administrative Office of the Courts had to create solutions, rules of court, and pages on court websites that helped the community understand what the clerk’s office was able to do and what it could not do.
I realize that we elect our state delegates and senators and members of our county and city councils trusting that they will be vigilant in their work and advocate for reasonable and rational legislation. We cannot be watching everything that is being considered by the legislature. Our representatives, if they have staff, are the people that we rely on; but even they can be overwhelmed by the mountain of bills that are presented each year.
There are lobbyists representing interest groups including citizens. To do nothing is not the answer. At the state level, Maryland Matters https://www.marylandmatters.org/ works for all of us. Depending on where you live and the community and personal resources that are available where you live, think about what you or some group in your community might do.
Start locally where you might have the most impact. With your city and county council, are there members who can provide reports to you and your local paper about what happened at the last meeting? Does your local paper cover those meetings for the community?
Do you have to wait until the meeting minutes are approved to know what happened? That can easily take weeks and more likely months to accomplish if you wait on city or county staff to prepare those minutes. If no representative is available to help, can you form a group to do it for your community or are you involved with a neighborhood group that might do it? Does your community allow for the meeting to be shown on TV or the Internet so that you can watch what is happening or review the recorded program?
Start by doing something and see what impact it might have in your community. Build a small group to find out what is going on and share it with your community. That is the way that your city or county council will recognize the value of you and your neighbors.
Thanks for Reading. Please be in touch.
Judge Rideout is the former Chief Judge of the Alexandria, VA Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court (1989-2004). From 2004 until the present he has consulted in different states to support their efforts to improve their child welfare systems. From 2016 to early 2021, he was the Ward 1 Commissioner on the Cambridge City Council. Throughout his career, he has been an advocate for improving the lives of children in his and other communities.