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Circuit judge seeks nighttime court sessions to handle caseload

July 31, 2011|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD | matthew.umstead@herald-mail.com
  • John C. Yoder
John C. Yoder

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — A 23rd Judicial Circuit judge has scheduled nighttime court sessions in Berkeley County next month because he said his growing, deadline-driven docket of child abuse and neglect cases, combined with an upcoming jury trial, leave him little choice.

Judge John C. Yoder notified the administrator of the state Supreme Court of Appeals and Berkeley County Council Attorney Norwood Bentley III of his intentions, but said last week the scheduled night hearings still could be postponed if the high court doesn’t agree to pay for a court reporter.

Citing data indicating he has the heaviest caseload of the circuit’s five judges, Yoder in March asked the Supreme Court to assign a judge to hear Lawyer v. Morgan County War Memorial Hospital, a medical malpractice case.

“The attorneys in the case advise that the jury trial will take at least 11 full working days,” Yoder said in a March 24 letter addressed to Chief Justice Margaret Workman.  

“I need another judge to hear this case because I have been assigned all of the juvenile cases, including all abuse and neglect cases in the 23rd Judicial Circuit,” Yoder added.

Workman responded to Yoder’s request in April, telling him to speak with Judge David H. Sanders, chief administrative judge of the 23rd Judicial Circuit, about getting help with the case.

Sanders was provided copies of the communication between Yoder and Workman, but last week said Yoder had not followed up with him.

Steven D. Canterbury, administrative director of the Supreme Court, said last week he told Yoder that his request for a court reporter was “highly unusual,” and he would let the high court decide whether or not to approve the expenditure.

If approved, Canterbury said other circuit judges in the state also might want to do the same thing and the cost could be compounded.

“We could be off to the merry races, and we try to treat everybody somewhat the same,” Canterbury said.

In his letter to Workman, Yoder said the weighted average of his caseload currently is 1.8 times greater than the average circuit judge in the state and also considerably higher than the other four judges in the Eastern Panhandle.

Yoder said a 10-day deadline for holding a preliminary hearing in abuse and neglect cases also is a complicating factor with his caseload.

If not at the top statewide, Canterbury acknowledged the ratio of population per judge in the Eastern Panhandle is close to the top.

“I have made legislative leadership and other legislators aware of it every chance I can talk to them,” said Canterbury, noting his past efforts to add more judges in the circuit. “The reality is the population keeps growing and the dockets get fuller and fuller.”

Apparent evidence of the growing caseload includes growth in the number of abuse and neglect cases, according to the Berkeley County Circuit Clerk’s office.

As of last week, cases involving 100 children were filed in circuit court. In about the same seven-month time frame last year, there were cases filed involving 42 children, according to the circuit clerk’s office.

Sanders said another judge has been needed in the circuit for some time, but where that person would be placed is uncertain.

Plans for a new judicial center in Jefferson County included two circuit courtrooms, but the project apparently has been shelved since it was discussed in 2009.

If Yoder is able to move forward with night court, Berkeley County would have to staff the judicial center with six to seven sheriff’s department court security officers and/or deputies, Sheriff Kenneth M. Lemaster said.

“I’d either have to pay overtime or I’d have to shut down my road patrol (to cover the courthouse),” Lemaster said.

Circuit Clerk Virginia M. Sine said she also doesn’t have money in her budget to provide a deputy clerk to Yoder’s court for an after-hours hearing, and she suspects Prosecuting Attorney Pamela Games-Neely doesn’t, either.  

Yoder insists he handles his dockets in an expeditious manner and dismissed observations by some in the judicial center that he doesn’t start court on time.

Yoder said it might appear as if court is not under way because he is not sitting on the bench, but indicated that he typically is waiting in his chambers for attorneys to finish closed-door discussions or negotiations about a case and he has other work to do.

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