- Report Published -
|Study of the Magistrate System|
|Supreme Court of Virginia|
|HJR 32 (Regular Session, 2002)|
|This report has been prepared in response to House Joint Resolution 32 of the 2002 General Assembly. The Resolution requested the Committee on District Courts to study the magistrate system and highlighted several issues for the study: e.g., the selection, training, oversight, and accountability of magistrates; magistrate competence; and the need to ensure a uniform statewide system for taking and resolving complaints and inquiries. A copy of House Joint Resolution 32 is available as Appendix 1.|
Magistrates are judicial officers whose primary responsibilities include providing an independent review of complaints of criminal activity brought by law enforcement officers and citizens and making bail determinations of those arrested upon criminal charges. Va. Code § 19.2-45. They have a judicial role in the civil commitment process for those who have a mental illness. See Va. Code Chapter 2, Title 37.1 (§ 37.1-63 et seq.). They also have the authority to issue emergency protective orders. Va. Code §§ 16.1-253.4, 19.2-152.8. In the execution of these duties, magistrates operate in a manner similar to judges, although within a more limited sphere of decision-making.
In response to House Joint Resolution 32, the Committee on District Courts appointed a Magistrate Study Advisory Committee and requested it to evaluate the relevant subjects and to prepare any recommendations it deemed appropriate for the Committee on District Courts’ consideration.
The magistrates’ work product is the totality of the decisions they make. To evaluate that product in terms of whether justice was satisfactorily done is an abstract, subjective inquiry. From participants’ perspectives, if they believe they did not receive justice, legal avenues are in place by which they may obtain another review; therefore, one portion of this study considers whether these avenues are sufficient and known to the public. From the perspective of policy bodies, however, it is impossible to measure the quality of justice delivered. As a result, the study is built on aspects of justice that can be more accurately assessed, even though they are also subjective. To evaluate these aspects of justice, the study articulated specific goals and standards so that actual practices could be measured against them, using surveys and focus groups.
The surveys and focus group comments produced a set of problems for which five venture teams, individual members of the Advisory Committee, and the Office of the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court of Virginia, developed suggested solutions for the Advisory Committee’s consideration.
These processes resulted in several issues for examination:
• Magistrate independence;
• Magistrate services, particularly in the areas of professionalism, timeliness, and access;
• Magistrate competence;
• Education and professional development;
• Recruitment and selection; and
• Management and oversight.
PART-TIME ON-CALL SYSTEM
While on the surface these issues may appear to be unrelated, further examination produced a common theme as an important contributing factor to the problems identified in each area. That common theme was the system’s reliance on the part-time on-call system in lieu of the more desirable but unaffordable full-time system.
The most effective, responsive, and user-friendly means of providing services is through fulltime offices in each county and city. Such offices are open 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, and are staffed by full-time magistrates. This arrangement, however, is not financially feasible in lower volume localities. Therefore, many localities receive their magistrate services through some variation of the part-time on-call system. As demonstrated by the map entitled Localities without Full-Time Magistrate Offices on the next page, fully 69% of the Commonwealth’s jurisdictions do not have a fulltime magistrate’s office within their boundaries. These jurisdictions without full-time offices represent 29% of the population and also constitute approximately 78% of the geographic area within the state. The vast majority of the jurisdictions without a full-time magistrate’s office within their boundaries rely on part-time on-call magistrates. However, some of these jurisdictions rely on a video conferencing connection with a full-time magistrate’s office in the proximate area. These video arrangements were not developed systematically and some, therefore, have something of an ad hoc quality.
The following is a description of certain operational aspects of the part-time on-call system that contribute to problems in several of the issues to be examined. Those desiring magistrate service contact on-call magistrates, usually through the dispatcher at a local Sheriff’s office. These on-call magistrates may be engaged in a range of personal activities, but are expected to meet the person requesting service at the magistrate office within approximately 20 minutes.
The on-call positions differ in the number of hours worked each week. In some localities, the demands for service mean that the magistrates are on-call a majority of the time with few activity hours, or hours spent actively performing magistrate responsibilities. At the other end of the spectrum, magistrates work specified shifts and are on-call for the balance of a schedule. In higher volume localities, magistrates’ activity time may range from 25 to 40 hours per week with on-call hours in addition to these activity hours.
The part-time on-call nature of these positions affects the ability to attract qualified applicants due to part-time pay and undesirable working conditions.
The dearth of qualified applicants and sparse staffing levels means that some managers place a higher priority on obtaining an individual to fill vacant positions than on qualifications or performance
In light of the management and service complexities associated with this system, a considerable number of the counties and cities in the Commonwealth experience difficulty in obtaining magistrate services. Therefore, significant improvements can be provided statewide by addressing the part-time on-call system.