After a decade akin to a roller coaster – up, down, up, down – the size of Arlington’s Circuit Court appears stable for the foreseeable future.
Having been back at four judges since last year, it is unlikely the General Assembly in 2021 will reduce the number assigned to the circuit (and even more unlikely it would increase the number). Del. Patrick Hope (D-Arlington), who sits on the House Courts of Justice Committee, reports “no news” in regard to changes to the size of the court.
That is similar to comments made by Paul Ferguson, the elected clerk whose office provides support services to the judges while fulfilling an array of other duties.
“We certainly hope to keep four Circuit Court judges in Arlington,” Ferguson told the Sun Gazette, anticipating no changes during the 2021 legislative session.
But what a decade-long ride it has been in what is officially known as the 17th Circuit, which includes the city of Falls Church as well as Arlington:
• In 2011, there were four Circuit Court judges on the bench in Arlington: Benjamin Kendrick, James Almand, Joanne Alper and Chief Judge William Newman Jr. The retirements of Almand and Kendrick in late 2011 and Alper in 2012 briefly left Newman as the lone jurist on the Circuit Court, assisted by substitute judges.
• In 2012, the General Assembly elected Louise Di Matteo and Daniel S. Fiore II to Circuit Court terms, bringing the bench back to three judges. But legislators balked at approving a fourth, and a 2013 state study concluded that Arlington’s judicial workload required just 2.8 positions, putting aspirations for a fourth slot on hold.
• In 2018, the General Assembly did approve re-establishing the fourth judgeship, but delayed funding the position a year. In 2019, legislators elected Judith Wheat to the slot.
Circuit Court judges are appointed (technically, “elected”) by the General Assembly for eight-year terms. State law requires that judges retire shortly after their 73rd birthdays; of Arlington’s four sitting jurists, only Newman is edging up to that age, and still has several years to go before he hits it. Of the others, Wheat’s term runs through mid-2027 and those of Di Matteo and Fiore (who were re-elected by the legislature this session) continue through mid-2028.
Having a full complement of judges in place may have helped maintain court operations during the current COVID-19 pandemic, which caused extremely curtailed services for several months.
In late June, Newman issued a directive to return the court system back to some semblance of normal operations on a step-by-step basis. It remains in force.
“This is a fluid situation that will require thoughtful amendments and adjustments along the way,” the chief judge said in promulgating the back-to-business plan. “We want to move cautiously and incrementally.”
Among the rules put in place: Sheriff’s Office personnel are taking the temperatures of everyone entering the county courthouse; face coverings are mandatory; and those who have been exposed to COVID-19 or are exhibiting symptoms consistent with it are not permitted entry.
While the word “court” usually connotes trials, the clerk’s office also is responsible for a host of duties ranging from maintaining land records to issuing marriage licenses.
“We continue to be ‘open’ for business every day,” Ferguson said, the quotation marks acknowledging that efforts have been focused on assisting the public electronically and via phone.
For walk-in traffic, “we go out in the hall to assist people when they knock,” he said.
Asked when his office might reopen in a less restrictive fashion, Ferguson was optimistic . . . but tentative.
“I am hopeful by Labor Day, but cannot make that promise,” he said.
That also seems to be the plan for trials and other court proceedings; Judge Newman’s directive of June pushed back many proceedings, where permitted by law, to at least early September.