Study may change magistrate allotment

August 22, 2013

David Beard

The Dominion Post, Morgantown

CHARLESTON (MCT) — State Supreme Court Administrative Director Steve Canterbury gave legislators a first peek at a study of magistrate caseloads — a study that could change how magistrates are allotted among the counties.

The study is being guided by the National Center for State Courts, Canterbury said. It’ll provide a load of facts. What the Legislature does with those facts is another issue.

“They’re not politically plugged in in the least,” he told members of a joint Finance subcommittee. “It’s just as factual as can be. It’s up to you to deal with the political angles of [handling] this thing — and there will be some political angles. What they could very well decide … is that having a county basis is a bad basis for the arrangement of magistrates.”

That kind of recommendation could stir the ire of some people in smaller counties, he said. But the study should provide some solutions to a long-term problem.

“For all too long, magistrates have been placed by the strongest people in the Legislature … without regard to need,” he said. The same goes for the magistrate staffers.

The center is working with a committee of magistrates and staffers drawn from counties of various sizes. They had their first meeting last week.

The perennial issue of magistrate caseloads and unequal pay — they are paid in two tiers based on population — came to a head during the 2013 session. A bill to equalize the pay for all magistrates failed, but led to a compromise during a special session that raised the pay for those in four counties that suffered population loss in the 2010 census.

That bill — SB 1003 — also mandated this study, due to be completed and reported to the Legislature by Dec. 1, 2014. The state Supreme Court will then craft legislative recommendations by Jan. 15, 2015. The study will use data from three years: 2009 through 2011.

Canterbury reminded legislators that there are 158 magistrates — at least two in every county. Many have more: Monongalia has four, Kanawha has 10. In 2011 (2012 figures haven’t been released yet, Canterbury said), they handled 273,408 criminal and civil cases along with 52,022 special proceedings (abuses and neglect, felonies, domestic, juvenile, some mental hygiene cases).

As previously reported, a caseload analysis showed a broad inequity in workload. In the top five counties — including Monongalia — the caseload exceeds 3,000 per magistrate. For the bottom five, each handles fewer than 500 cases.

Canterbury reminded legislators that the state Constitution doesn’t mandate two magistrates per county. It only requires the Legislature to establish a magistrate court in each county and determine the qualifications and the number of magistrates for court.

Along similar lines, he said, not every county has a circuit judge, but each does have a circuit clerk’s office. His opinion is that the Legislature has room to change things.

Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, told Canterbury he hopes the study will lead the Supreme Court to take some action on its own.

“I would hope that the Supreme Court would look at ways to deal with some of these issues administratively,” he said. “I look at this as more than just a legislative study and a legislative issue. I look at it as a way to deliver an efficient, modern court system to everybody out there, no matter where they live.”

There should be some common-sense, practical ways to deal with coverage that don’t require political involvement, he said.


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