Budget: No money for judge

Published 10:32 am Saturday, March 20, 2010

FRANKLIN—The state budget approved by the General Assembly last weekend does not include funding to fill the vacancy that will be created when Fifth Circuit Chief Judge Westbrook J. Parker retires this summer.

The judgeship is one of many across the state that will be left vacant as part of lawmakers’ efforts to deal with lean state coffers.

Delegate S. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, said the state budget doesn’t provide funding to replace judges “through the end of this year, nor any retiring judges in the next two years.”

If the funding isn’t restored, the number of vacant judgeships across the commonwealth could swell to more than 30 by the end of the 2012 fiscal year.

“It was something we really didn’t want to do,” but it helped fill the huge budget gap, said Jones, who was a member of the budget conference committee that resolved differences between the House of Delegates and Senate.

The Senate’s budget had included funding for vacant judgeships, but the House’s didn’t. Neither did the final version.

“We had a $4.2 billion hole to fill and it was felt that substitute judges could fill in,” Jones said, adding that leaving the judgeships vacant presented a significant cost savings.

Delegate Bill Barlow, D-Smithfield, said he is opposed to leaving Parker’s seat vacant. The move will leave the Fifth Judicial Circuit with only two judges.

“That’s a one-third cut,” he said. “I’m very concerned that it’s going to be very harmful to our citizens to be lacking a judge.”

The Fifth Judicial Circuit covers Isle of Wight and Southampton counties as well as the cities of Franklin and Suffolk.

Both Jones and Sen. L. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, said there were a number of other things competing for the state’s limited funds.

“When it came down to funding education and funding new judgeships, then it became obvious to many of us that we have to make sure that our kids get an education,” Lucas said. “I know we need to fill these judgeships, but I’ve got to tell you, we need to do more to educate students and keep them out of jails and prisons.”

Jones said the conferees were trying to do as little harm as possible to health care and K-12 education. He added that if the economy improves significantly by next year’s session, the budget could be adjusted and vacancies could be addressed.

“I would certainly think that we would revisit the issue,” he said.