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State struggles with budget problems affect area Circuit Courts

As the Virginia General Assembly and Gov. Terry McAuliffe struggle with a months-long budget stalemate, no one is watching more closely than King George Circuit Court Clerk Vic Mason and his colleagues across the 15th Judicial Circuit.

Mason said this week the problems caused by the lack of a state budget so far have resulted in an inability to fill judicial vacancies and a shortage of funding for circuit clerk’s offices and judicial and court employees.
“The problems we face will only continue to get worse if the budget stalemate continues,” Mason said. “I have talked with Sen. Richard Stuart, who sits on the Courts of Justice Committee and is a practicing attorney, who understands the implications to the integrity of the court system if this continues.”

Mason said he was “cautiously optimistic.” And his hopeful outlook would appear to be justified. After being locked in a bitter partisan deadlock over a budget proposal that included an expansion of Medicaid, the logjam appeared to break last week when Democratic Sen. Phillip Puckett abruptly resigned, giving Republicans control of the Virginia Senate.

The Republican-led Virginia House of Delegates quickly passed a state budget that does not include a Medicaid expansion, and the newly-Republican Senate, after some frenzied negotiations, followed suit. Now, the ball is in McAuliffe’s court. He can sign, amend or veto the new budget bill.

Local officials across the state who have been making do with inadequate funding are anxiously awaiting McAuliffe’s decision; that includes Mason and the other clerks of Virginia’s 15th Judicial Circuit, which includes King George and Westmoreland counties.

The 15th Circuit was already overworked before the budget impasse began with caseloads running as much as 40 percent above the state average. The 15th Circuit got a new judge last year, but then was hit with the retirement of a sitting judge in Spotsylvania last month.

Judge Joseph Ellis, who normally sits in King George, has filled the Spotsylvania vacancy. “The King George Circuit Court has had to try and find retired circuit court judges to sit on court days,” Mason said. “We are fortunate in that there are many retired judges that have agreed to fill in.”
Mason said the budget shortfall has also presented problems with administrating the judge’s county budget. “Bills such as telephone, copier lease and legal publications have to be submitted by my staff,” Mason said. “And, we may not be familiar with the equipment or the supply purchases that have been made.”

“Many of the responsibilities that have been handed by the state-funded sitting judge must now be performed by locally-funded personnel,” Mason said. “The way things are now is inefficient and cumbersome.”

“Localities and local employees have been waiting on this budget since March,” said Del. Margaret Ransone. “I am hopeful the Governor will sign the budget without any substantial amendments and without Medicaid expansion.” 

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