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Berkeley County magistrates crushed by caseloads

March 02, 2001

Berkeley County magistrates crushed by caseloads



By BOB PARTLOW / Staff Writer, Martinsburg


What Berkeley County Prosecuting Attorney Pamela Games-Neely calls "the front door of the judicial system" is getting crowded.

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Last year, more than 20,000 cases were handled by the four magistrates who run Berkeley County Magistrate Court. Comparable figures for past years were not available.

The magistrates, who work out of an old school building on John Street, deal with cases ranging from first-degree murder to speeding tickets.

The first step in every criminal case, except those involving grand jury indictments, is taken in magistrate court, which is also the first stop for domestic disputes, civil cases under $5,000, misdemeanors and landlord-tenant disputes. The four elected magistrates handle all arraignments and hold trials although they don't have to be lawyers.

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The paperwork is getting overwhelming, new Magistrate Carlton DeHaven said.

One day last week he spent several hours signing his name to 500 pieces of paper. That's not unusual, he said.

"It's just really, really busy there," said Magistrate Joan Bragg, who was elected in 1988. "We can't keep going the way we are."

"They see everybody down there," Games-Neely said.

For the second straight year, local lawmakers will ask the West Virginia Legislature to create a fifth magistrate position for Berkeley County. They believe county population figures to be released in April will help make their case. DeHaven said the human argument also is persuasive.

"As a member of the public, you never really know when you might be involved in something that puts you here," DeHaven said. "But when you're here, it's going to be the most important day of your life. It's nice to have a fresh, prepared magistrate who's going to give you his full attention, not someone who's heard 50 cases already and put in 10 hours that day.

"In the last two months since I've been on the job, I haven't had one good night's sleep. I always worry, 'Was I right. Was I fair? Did I sign the papers right?' The work load really worries you that you are making mistakes.

"It's very, very easy to make a mistake. And that mistake might affect somebody's life."

House Minority Leader Charles Trump, R-Morgan, tried unsuccessfully last year to convince the Legislature to approve a fifth magistrate. "Expense is always a consideration in these things," he said.

A magistrate's salary is $37,000 a year, and the county provides the office. The county wants a new magistrate and is looking around to find a place for an office, said Commissioner Howard Strauss.

Overloaded court schedules affect the public, Trump said.

"At some point, it does affect the ability of the courts to respond to and address quickly the disputes that citizens have," Trump said.

Neither Trump or state Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, would predict whether a bill to add another magistrate would pass. A complicated formula by which magistrates were distributed among West Virginia's 55 counties has been discarded, leaving it to lawmaker discretion, Trump said.

"I think the caseload argument is there and I think the census figures will show we should have another magistrate," Unger said. The population figures weren't available last year.

"Population figures (based on the census) lag 10 years behind what the actual need may be," said Circuit Judge Christopher Wilkes.

When population figures are released, they are expected to show that Berkeley County was the fastest-growing county in the state during the past decade.

Lawmakers could, at no cost, redistribute magistrates among the counties, adding some where population has grown, removing some where it has decreased.

But Trump said that could be difficult.

"People always fight to protect what they've got," he said. "Legislators are representing their people, and rightly so."

Wilkes said something must be done and believes it will be.

"It's at the breaking point," Wilkes said. "I'm optimistic we'll get a new magistrate."

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