The price of delay: Why court backlog is a serious problem for Charlottesville

Charlottesville Circuit Court Clerk Llezelle Duggar has a front-row seat for what some in the city’s legal community say is a big problem around the state: a backlog of criminal and civil cases tying up the courts. File photo. Charlottesville Circuit Court Clerk Llezelle Duggar has a front-row seat for what some in the city’s legal community say is a big problem around the state: a backlog of criminal and civil cases tying up the courts. File photo.

The Charlottesville Circuit Court stays busy: The city’s police department reported a total of 381 crimes committed in 2012. The Circuit Court opened 399 criminal files and 406 civil files that same year. For a population of roughly 44,000, that’s no small potatoes. It seems one of the many legacies left by the city’s patriarch and most famous resident, Thomas Jefferson—himself a lawyer—was a litigious disposition.

All this courtroom activity wouldn’t really raise any eyebrows except that it’s plagued by case backlog. The backlog has a lot of causes, limited budgets being just one of them, and it has a lot of consequences: It’s bad for legal parties, the public, and the legal justice system.

Case backlog or docket jam is not uncommon. Courts all over the country experience some form of backlog for one reason or another. Getting most criminal and civil cases through our legal system is a complex, time-consuming process that really can’t and shouldn’t be rushed.

Even if judges wanted to speed up the trial process, they often don’t have the power to do so. Trials are usually delayed because of a number of things allowed during the pretrial phase such as hearings, continuances, motions, and discovery. Lawyers and the parties to the trial are the cause for these delays. Another factor that has to be taken into account when talking about undue trial delay, especially in Virginia, is lack of judges.

“The biggest problem with the courts is there’s not enough judges, which has a lot to do with things getting jammed up,” said local defense attorney Dean Lhospital.

In the Clerk’s Office for the City of Charlottesville Circuit Court, case backlog is just a part of the job.

“We only have one sitting judge [for the City Circuit Court] and one courtroom,” said Llezelle Dugger, the clerk of the city court. “The judge’s docket is 85 percent criminal cases, which fills up his docket and ties up the courtroom for days and even weeks sometimes.”

That judge, Edward L. Hogshire, who just recently announced his upcoming retirement from the bench, is one of the five district judges who form the 16th Judicial Circuit in the Commonwealth. He, along with Judge Cheryl V. Higgins of the County Circuit Court, are the only two sitting judges for the Circuit, an area that comprises the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle, Culpeper, Fluvanna, Goochland, Greene, Louisa, Madison, and Orange counties. The other three judges travel the Circuit from court to court to help out where needed.

That’s a lot of geography and population to cover for five judges. With so few, it’s not surprising that docket backlog is an issue. In fact, a recent report written by the National Center for Safe Courts found that the entire Commonwealth was suffering from a shortage of judges. The main culprit is a lack of resources and funding that could be allocated to the state’s budget to pay for new judgeships.

But, as Dugger explained, even if the Circuit Court were to get another judge, there would be no place for that judge to set up shop. With a lack of funds for judgeships, you can bet there’s a lack of funds to construct new courthouses or additional courtrooms throughout the Commonwealth.

“We sometimes have to use the court’s conference room for hearings out of necessity when cases are piling up and the courtroom is occupied with an ongoing trial,” said Dugger. “We’re not going to get another full courtroom because that would cost millions of dollars.”

The Justice Policy Institute, a liberal think tank based in Washington, D.C., issued a report in November of last year blasting Virginia’s justice system as expensive, ineffective, and unfair. While the report’s discussion of “misguided policies and practices” featured the usual suspects—too many drug arrests, too few educational opportunities for low-income communities of color—it did recommend reforming Virginia’s judicial selection away from a purely legislative appointment process to a more performance-based model. The latter process would allow more input from local bar associations, legal groups, and the general public, likely avoiding the judicial vacancy and caseload management issues caused by political gridlock over judicial selection, says the report.

Lhospital believes another one of the report’s recommendations of raising the threshold amount of what distinguishes grand larceny from petty larceny to $600 would not only save a lot of money but also improve the backlog issue.

“The threshold for grand larceny has been $200 for over 30 years,” said Lhospital. “Raising that amount to reflect modern-day times would save lots of money Virginia spends on corrections.”

A 2008 Virginia Department of Corrections study estimated that raising the amount to $600 would save $1.8 million in the first year alone—more money the Commonwealth could allocate to things like paying for more judges, said Lhospital.

The consequences of case back-up, like the causes, are numerous and generally negative for all parties involved. When the caseload piles up, some cases may not get a court date until the next calendar year. Civil litigants, in particular, get dealt a blow because criminal cases take precedence due to constitutional laws dictating time periods that criminal cases must be called to trial.

In the Circuit Court, Dugger said that many civil cases currently being filed will receive a court date in 2015 because the large majority of cases are criminal and they essentially book the one courtroom for back-to-back weeks on end.

The longer the time between a crime and the trial date also affects things like witness memory, which in turn, adversely affect evidence and trial testimony. If you happen to be a criminal defendant who’s detained pretrial, waiting in a jail cell for your day in court to come while still being technically innocent must be particularly frustrating, especially knowing a backlog of cases is the cause. And case backlog almost certainly dissuades some members of the public from filing a grievance or bringing a complaint when they realize how long the process will take.

Then there are the victims of crimes and their friends and families, who also suffer while they wait for justice.

Locally, the problem seems to be best addressed by hiring another judge. But then there’s that pesky budget.

“In a perfect world, case backlog wouldn’t be a problem because everyone would get to court based on a timeline but we don’t live in a perfect world,” said Dugger. “I just wish it wasn’t because we have only one judge.”

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