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W.Va. judges face 'space scramble' even as new center nears opening

July 02, 2006|by MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - When Berkeley County's new judicial center opens this fall, it will have room for the three judges who preside here now.

But it won't have room for the additional judge Gov. Joe Manchin is expected to appoint soon, local officials said.

"The court system and its growth has far exceeded anyone's anticipation," Berkeley County Commissioner Howard L. Strauss said Thursday of the space crunch.

The first phase of the Judicial Center project expected to be completed in October includes accommodations for judges Gray Silver III , Christopher C. Wilkes and David H. Sanders.

Thomas W. Steptoe Jr., the other judge in the 23rd Judicial Circuit, presides in Jefferson County.

Silver might move to the judicial center as early as August, Sanders said Friday. Sanders said his current chambers in the Berkeley County Courthouse will remain furnished. The new judge possibly could preside there or at the Morgan County Courthouse, he said.

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"Obviously, the first couple months will be a little bit of a scramble," said Sanders.

Strauss said he was not sure where the circuit's fifth judge will set up shop, and some Jefferson County officials said Friday that Circuit Court proceedings held there already are causing difficulties for magistrate hearings.

About every three weeks, Silver uses a magistrate courtroom in the Jefferson County Judicial Center in Charles Town, W.Va., to hear cases. He and other visiting Circuit judges also have use of an office there.

"Every time (Silver is) there, it's totally disruptive," Jefferson County Magistrate Gail Boober said. Boober and fellow magistrates Mary Paul Rissler and William E. Senseney already share two courtrooms.

"If the family court judge is there, we don't have access to that," Boober said.

Silver's obligations have forced magistrates to hold hearings in small, attorney conference rooms, which Boober said poses safety concerns for the court, even though bailiffs are present.

"You're 2 feet apart (from the defendants) ... it's not a good thing," Boober said.

A significant increase in the magistrate court's caseload hasn't helped scheduling matters either, Boober said.

Last month, Silver met with the Jefferson County Commission to discuss possibilities on what could be done to address the space shortage, but no action was taken, County Administrator Leslie Smith said.

"A lot of it depends on where the (new) judge comes from," Smith said. "I think things are up in the air."

In recognition of the court system growth, Strauss said the Berkeley County Commission decided to designate all of the yet-to-be renovated Crawford Building at the former Blue Ridge Outlets complex for judicial services. The renovation is expected to be done in three years, about when the 23rd Judicial Circuit might gain a sixth judge, Strauss said.

Sanders and Wilkes experienced a similar courtroom space challenge when they were elected in 1992.

The county's purchase of a former bank building next to the courthouse helped alleviate the crunch then, Sanders said. Court chambers were established in the top floor of the building now occupied by the Sheriff's Department.

"It wasn't clear at all where I was going," Sanders recalled.

A spokesperson with Manchin's communications office was not immediately available to comment.

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