If Fairfax Circuit Court is a model of efficiency, the county's lower courts are -- like the county's roads -- a model of congestion.
Fairfax General District Judge Robert M. Hurst says that some days traffic court is so congested, all he can do is "just bomb through" the docket.
"The public generally expects that a judge will hear them out, not just give them 30 seconds," said Hurst, who recently stepped down as chief judge of the court. "You can't give them the time they expect."
Speedy justice, a hallmark of Fairfax Circuit Court, is also the forte of Fairfax's General District Court, the court that hears traffic cases and misdemeanors, and holds preliminary hearings in felony cases.
Hurst, one of seven General District Court judges, said more jurists are needed to handle the traffic cases, which make up about 70 percent of the court's business. Last year the court had a record 146,404 traffic cases, and officials predict that this year it will surpass that number by 30,000.
"It's kind of like swimming upstream," said Hurst, who has written numerous letters to Virginia court authorities in Richmond seeking more judgeships. In addition to judges, Hurst said, the court critically needs more staff. Both are regulated by the General Assembly.
"The fact is, we are just terribly, terribly short of resources," said Clerk of the Court Catharine K. Ratiner, who has announced that she is resigning, partly in frustration. "I'm kind of tired. It's disappointing."
Despite packed benches in Fairfax's three traffic courts, Ratiner said, delay is not a problem. "We are prompt," she said. "We very seldom will continue anything . . . . We simply stay and do it."
To keep the work moving, however, said Ratiner, it has been necessary to close the court's civil division an hour each day. "If we did not have our computer system, we would be wiped out," she said.
Ratiner said that the growing number of state troopers and other law enforcement officers in Northern Virginia has added cases, and so have new regulations such as the High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV-3) rules on I-66. "A month after that went into effect we were swamped with cases," Ratiner said. After the Dulles Toll Road opened, "we saw another wave come in."
Both Hurst, who will remain on the bench, and Ratiner, who leaves May 15, point to 69 new positions authorized for the state police and predict yet another wave. Virginia State Police Capt. B.R. Belsches, who is assistant field supervisor in Richmond, Belsches said it is too early to say where all the state troopers will be stationed. But "I can assure you some will be coming to Fairfax," he said.Even if crimes generally are decreasing, Robert F. Horan Jr., the commonwealth's attorney in Fairfax, said, it is a "peculiar phenomenon" that the number of traffic cases goes up. His explanation: In times with relatively little crime, police have more time to ride the streets and write more traffic tickets.
Robert Baldwin, executive secretary of the Virginia Supreme Court, said there is no question that the Fairfax General District Court is a "high-volume, high-paced court" and needs additional resources.
But he said courts around the state are vying for the 19 new clerical positions approved this year by the General Assembly. A court committee had requested 56 spots positions, Baldwin said.