The Virginia Judicial Council is calling for establishment of an appelate court to unsnarl a judicial traffic jam in the state Supreme Court. But even though Virginia has one of the most overburdened dockets in the nation, the council is in no hurry.
For 12 years the council has talked about expanding the state court system to help the seven Virginia Supreme Court justices cope with a landslide of cases. The Virginia State Bar Association as well as the high court's 73-year-old Chief Justice Lawrence I'Anson and a majority of his collegues support the creation of an appellate court between the Circuit and Supreme Court levels. c
Before the council asks the General Assembly to add to the judiciary system, however, the council has decided to spend another year studying ways to decongest the clogged docket at the Virginia Supreme Court.
The Virginia Judicial Council is chaired by Chief Justice I'Anson and includes two members of the General Assembly, five Circuit Court judges and two lawyers. The council members serve, for no pay, as Virginia's judicial review panel and monitor the size and function of the state court system.
The panel commissioned a $50,000 review of the Virginia court system by the National Center for State Courts. The study found the state Supreme Court to be in great need of appellate help, and the report urged creation of a 12-member appellate court, consisting of three panels of four judges, that would share the Supreme Court quarters in Richmond. The projected cost to state taxpayers is more than $1.3 million a year.
Robert Baldwin, executive secretary of the state Supreme Court and spokesman for the 10 members of the judicial council, said the council recently reject the specific remedy proposed by the National Center, although the council geneally supports some type of appellate level.
Del. George Allen Jr., who chairs the House Courts of Justice Committee, looks upon an expanded legal network with disdain. "I've always been against the idea," he said.
Other observers, including a majority of Virginia's defense attorneys, scoff at ithe idea of an appellate court.
Samuel Clifton, executive director of the Virginia State Bar Association, says many opponents to court growth believe courts are like highways. "The more you build, the heavier the traffic gets," said Clifton.
The consultants, however, say the state's present appellate avenues are obsolete. "One major argument is that the court's caseload far exceeds that of other supreme courts in states without intermediate courts.This is explained largely by the court's discretionary jurisdiction, which enables it to refuse full-scale review in the great majority of appeals. The constantly rising appellate caseload, however, has rendered this system unworkable, and an intermediate court is now required."
In addition, The National Center for State Courts reports, a majority of Virginia Supreme Court jurists say that:
Virginia has the biggest Supreme Court caseload and the largest population of any state without an intermediate court.
Justices lack sufficient time to research and develop the body of law.
The state Supreme Court's caseload is now beyond capacity and is growing so fast that petitions for appeal have increased fourfold in the last 20 years. sAnd, the report said, the Supreme Court is hampered by "its inability to provide continued and thorough review."
Coleman said he does not endorse the appellate proposal, although he is not actively campaigning against it. Instead, he suggests an alternative. "What we may want to do is expand the Supreme Court to nine members," he said. "I think the trouble that people are having in getting their appeals heard at the Supreme Court level is common knowledge."
Colman says Virginia may went to avoid the expense of establishing an appellate branch. "I'm not sure if Virginia wants to pay out the millions of dollars that will have to be doled out over the years for a new court. If we just add two members to the Supreme Court, they could sit and hear cases in panels of three." Coleman says his plan would enable the justices to hear 67 percent more cases than are now being heard.