HD13 - Virginia Judicial Workload Assessment Report - November 15, 2013
This report describes, in detail, the National Center for State Courts' (NCSC) study of judicial workload and judicial boundary realignment in the Commonwealth of Virginia, conducted between May 2012 and October 2013. The project began with a directive from the General Assembly to the Supreme Court of Virginia to "develop and implement a weighted caseload system to precisely measure and compare judicial caseloads throughout the Commonwealth on the circuit court, general district court, and juvenile and domestic relations district court levels," and recommend a plan for the realignment of the circuit and district boundaries. (*1) The primary goals of the study were to:
• Develop a valid measure of judicial workload in all circuit and district courts, taking into account variations in complexity among different case types, as well as differences in the non-case-related responsibilities of judges in single-jurisdiction and multi-jurisdiction circuits and districts;
• Evaluate the current allocation of judicial resources;
• Establish a transparent and empirically driven formula for the Supreme Court and the General Assembly to use in determining the appropriate level of judicial resources in each circuit and district; and
• Examine judicial boundary realignment.
The evaluation of judicial workload and judicial boundary realignment was structured around several complementary activities. The NCSC worked to:
• Establish case type categories and compile accurate filing counts for each case type category.
• Establish a baseline of current practice. NCSC staff conducted a five-week statewide time study to measure the amount of time judges currently spend on various case type categories and activities throughout the day (including case-related and non-case-related activities). A total of 375 full-time judges, or 97 percent of all Virginia trial court judges, participated in the time study. Forty-one retired judges also participated. The high participation rate ensured sufficient data to develop an accurate and reliable portrait of current practice.
• Gain an in-depth understanding of the issues judges face in the effective handling of their cases. NCSC staff visited circuit, general district, and juvenile and domestic relations district courts in 11 judicial circuits and districts covering 44 jurisdictions. Additionally, a Web-based survey was administered to all circuit, general district, and juvenile and domestic relations district court judges statewide. The survey asked judges to identify particular tasks, if any, where additional time would allow them to more effectively handle their cases.
• Provide a qualitative review of current practice. Three separate quality adjustment sessions were held with Delphi groups of seasoned judges, one for each court type. The judges in each group were asked to bring their expertise to bear on assessing the quality of current case processing and, when deemed necessary, make recommendations for potential adjustments to the preliminary time study results.
• Provide insight into the usage of judicial resources in multi-jurisdiction circuits and districts. All chief judges in multi-jurisdiction circuits and districts completed a court schedule survey.
Project staff met regularly throughout the project with an advisory committee of judges and clerks (known as the Judicial Needs Assessment Committee) to seek input concerning the project. Following the Delphi sessions, the Committee reviewed a final set of quality-adjusted case weights and proposals for judicial boundary realignment.
The basic methodology used by the NCSC is the calculation of the average amount of work time judges devote to different types of cases. Because cases vary according to complexity, the average times, called “case weights," also vary. When the case weights are applied to filings in individual jurisdictions, the workload in minutes or hours can be calculated. The total judicial need is estimated by dividing workload by the amount of time per year that a judge has available to do case-related work (the judge-year value).
Application of the weighted caseload model shows that the current judicial workload for circuit court, general district court, and juvenile and domestic relations district court exceeds the capacity of the existing complement of judges. Additional judges are needed to enable Virginia's trial court judiciary to manage and resolve court business effectively and without delay.
• Circuit court has an implied need of 171 FTE judges. The weighted caseload model shows a need to fill nearly all current vacancies as well as creating an additional 13 judgeships to add to the current total of 158 authorized judgeships.
• General district court has a need for 124 FTE judges. As of July 1, 2013 there were 118 sitting judges (with nine vacancies), indicating a need to fill at least six of the vacant positions.
• Juvenile and domestic relations district court shows a need for 134 FTE judicial positions. This is an increase of 17 judgeships from the current total of 117 authorized judicial positions.
NCSC strongly recommends that the General Assembly begin to fill judicial vacancies, and in some instances create new authorized judicial positions.
Judicial Boundary Realignment
The weighted caseload model also provides the Commonwealth of Virginia with a means to more precisely measure and compare judicial workload across circuits and districts and examine existing judicial boundaries. The boundary realignment analysis was guided by the following principles: an efficient use of judicial resources; an equitable allocation of judicial resources among circuits and districts; uniform judicial boundaries for judicial circuits and districts; contiguity; respect for communities of interest; and preserving the basic shape of existing judicial circuits and districts.
A reassessment of the judicial boundaries led to the conclusions that the Commonwealth of Virginia retain the current court structure and existing jurisdictional boundaries. The study found that:
• No scheme of judicial boundary realignment can reduce the total judicial workload in the Commonwealth's trial courts or result in an appreciable change in the total number of judges required to handle that workload at a statewide level;
• Changing judicial boundaries, in and of itself, will not reduce the number of judges needed. The need for judges as well as the equitable allocation of judicial positions should be based on the weighted caseload model;
• While it is possible to find a few instances where combining two or more jurisdictions at the circuit level will suggest a greater "efficiency," this new configuration of circuits generally does not translate to a greater efficiency at the district court level and may even result in an increase in judicial need at the general district or juvenile and domestic relations district court level; and
• Leaving current circuit/district boundaries intact preserves existing communities of interest and minimizes the impact on established local funding, service, and partnership arrangements.
The NCSC found no concrete benefits to be gained from realigning circuit and district boundaries or moving to a regional model, and therefore, recommends that the Commonwealth of Virginia retain the current court structure and existing jurisdictional boundaries.
The National Center for State Courts offers these recommendations as a way to ensure the effective use of the workload model for analyzing judicial workload in Virginia’s courts to produce maximum benefit for the courts and citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia, and to preserve the integrity and utility of the workload model into the future.
The General Assembly should consider filling judicial vacancies, and in some cases creating new judicial positions, in circuits and districts where the weighted caseload model shows a need for additional judicial resources.
Any plan for the realignment of judicial boundaries or the redistribution of judicial resources in Virginia’s trial courts should therefore be informed by an analysis of judicial workload using the weighted caseload model described in this report.
The manner in which retired and substitute judges are used should be reevaluated, with an eye towards implementing a more formalized statewide system for assigning retired or senior status judges. Qualitative data from the sufficiency of time survey and site visits suggest that the regular usage of substitute judges may compromise the efficiency and quality of case processing.
Over time, the integrity of a weighted caseload model may be affected by multiple influences, such as changes in legislation, case law, legal practice, and technology. A systematic review of the model should be conducted on a periodic basis.
(*1) Va. Acts of Assembly Ch. 601 (2012)