VA: The Governor, the Legislature, the State Bar, and a bit of retaliation with bar dues?

In 2010, the Virginia state legislature imposed a judicial hiring freeze, declining to fill any newly created vacancies created due to judges retiring, resigning, or otherwise leaving the bench. The council of the state’s mandatory bar (Virginia State Bar), itself an agency of the Virginia Supreme Court, passed a February 2010 resolution urging funding for the vacancies. Nevertheless, the freeze was approved.

In December 2010 the president of the VSB sent a letter to all bar members urging they indicate to their state legislators the impact the freeze was having in Virginia’s courts.

According to the Virginia Lawyer Weekly’s blog, the pressure initially appeared to have succeeded in getting additional funding for judgeships in 2011. However, the Governor’s plan for funding those positions includes use of $5 million in mandatory bar dues. Existing state law directs the bar dues go to a State Bar Fund to pay for the Bar itself and its functions.

The incoming chair of the House Courts of Justice Committee indicated to Virginia Lawyers Weekly he thought this was a direct response by the Governor to VSB’s efforts at advocacy against the hiring freeze plan.

Are state bar dues nationally subject to this sort of general appropriation movement? Virginia’s state appropriations bill (HB 30 of 2010) at pages 25-26 go into detail with respect to state bar funding. Contrast this to South Dakota’s appropriations bill (SB 196 of 2010) which lists State Bar of South Dakota appropriations as “Informational” only.

Increasing civil monetary jurisdiction levels of courts

The push to raise the monetary limits of various courts is already in full swing this year, starting at a faster pace than normal. Already three states have bills pending to raise civil limits.

South Carolina SB 125 would increase magistrate court’s jurisdiction to $10,000 from $7,500. Virginia SB 774 would increase district court jurisdiction to $25,000 from $15,000. Finally, Wyoming SB 15 would redefine a small claim up to $7,500 from its currently $5,000.

As the legislatures of these three states are still out of session until January 11 or 12, no action has been taken on any of the bills.

VA: Another try at increasing the mandatory retirement age for judges

For the fifth year in a row, Virginia is considering increasing the retirement age for its judges above its current 70.

The effort began in 2007 with SB 997, a bill that would have increased the age from 70 to 75. Its author submitted the bill “because many judges aren’t ready to retire by age 70.” A proposed committee amendment to remove the limit altogether failed because as the Senator in opposition put it “I know some judges who are so committed to practice they’d never retire.” The full Senate passed it 38-0, but the House failed to take it up.

In 2008, at least three bills (HB 783, SB 19, SB 34) made their way through various committees. Much of the focus was on SB 19, although passed by both chambers it was so heavily amended in each version they could not be reconciled before adjournment. 2009 proved no better: despite a unanimous 2007 Senate two years prior, an increase to 75 (SB 856) was rejected by the 2009 Senate 18-22; the House version (HB 1818) never even made it out of committee.

2010 marked a breakthrough year: SB 206 (increase to 73) made it through the Senate and the House Courts of Justice Committee, but died when referred to House Appropriations.

HB 1497 is picking up where SB 206 left off, with 73 the apparent target age.

Judicial Retirement Plans/Pensions: Southern States

Georgia HB 202 Authorizes the boards of all public retirement systems operating under Title 47 of O.C.G.A to adopt any rules which are required to meet the necessary federal compliance standards. It requires all systems to comply with mandatory distribution requirements that are included in the Internal Revenue Code. Clarifies provisions relating to rollovers from public retirement systems to other qualified plans, and revises language relating to maximum benefits payable to ensure the language is consistent with the Internal Revenue Code.

Georgia HB 210 Amends provisions relating to membership in the Georgia Judicial Retirement System. Clarifies that certain attorney‘s employed by the office of Legislative Counsel or the Department of Law on June 30, 2005, shall retain all rights and obligations as exist on that day. Those in this group shall be subject to all provisions of this chapter applicable to solicitors-general of the state courts, and Employer contributions shall be paid by respective employers under such Code sections.

Georgia HB 452 Provides that members of the Georgia Judicial Retirement System who become members on or after July 1, 2009, not be entitled to receive any postretirement benefit adjustments.

Georgia SB 109 Provides for each of the following Councils to pay their respective employer contributions for retirement: Superior Court Judges, State Court Judges, Juvenile Court Judges and the Prosecuting Attorneys. Requires  that each of these Councils be authorized, and directed to pay from funds appropriated or otherwise available in additional amount equal to the 5% contribution of the member plus an additional 20% so that the state contribution is in accordance with the Employees’ Retirement System of Georgia

Georgia SB 177 Provides that appellate court judges who become members of the Employees’ Retirement System of Georgia, and persons who become members of the Georgia Judicial Retirement System on or after July 1, 2009, not be entitled to Survivors benefits.

Kentucky HB 182 Permits the Judicial Form Retirement System board of trustees to promulgate administrative regulations to conform with federal statutes and regulations and to meet the qualification requirements under 26 U.S.C. Section 401(a).

Kentucky HB 289 Judicial Retirement Plan to honor qualified domestic relations orders if the orders meet the requirements established by the retirement systems or plan and by these sections

North Carolina HB 1507 & SB 703 Permits assets of Consolidated Judicial Retirement System and systems to may be invested in securities traded on a public securities exchange or market organized and regulated pursuant to the laws of the jurisdiction of such exchange or market (previously limited to “preferred or common stock”) . Signed into law by governor 6/11/09.

North Carolina HB 649 & SB 691 Specifies Treasurer’s responsibilities and duties regarding Consolidated Judicial Retirement System and other retirement systems. Signed into law by Governor 7/10/09.

Oklahoma HB 1110 (2009) Requires Oklahoma Public Employees Retirement System deliver two reports of the fiscal activities of  the State Judicial Retirement Fund for the fiscal year to the Legislative Service Bureau. House and Senate conference committee unable to come to agreement 5/27/09.

Oklahoma HB 2357 (2010) Requires Oklahoma Public Employees Retirement System deliver two reports of the fiscal activities of  the State Judicial Retirement Fund for the fiscal year to the Legislative Service Bureau. Approved by full House 2/10/10. Approved with Senate amendment by full Senate 3/29/10. To House to concur with amendment.

Oklahoma SB 1059 Makes various modifications to employer contribution rates for Uniform Retirement System for Justices and Judges. Requires certain funds be transferred to the Judicial Retirement Fund.  Approved by full Senate 3/9/09. Died in House.

Oklahoma SB 212 Specifies that the funded ratio for the State Judicial Retirement Fund should be at or near 90%  (previously 100%) or be receiving sufficient contributions to amortize any unfunded liability of the fund according to the adopted amortization schedule.  Modifies the Board of Trustees ability to raise employer contribution rates. Signed into law by Governor 5/26/09.

Virginia HB 1189 & SB 232 Changes member contributions for those under the Judicial Retirement System or other specified plans. Institutes a new service weight schedule based on the judge’s age at the time he or she is appointed or elected to an original term commencing July 1, 2010 Changes the requirements for unreduced early retirement benefits from 50 years of age and 30 years of creditable service, to the “Rule of 90” (combination of age and service equals 90). Approved by House and Senate 3/11/10. To Governor for approval.

Emergencies and the courts

How courts operate, or don’t, post-disaster has been of considerable concern since 9/11 and all the more so after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Several states have tackled the matter. For example, Delaware’s SB 25 of 2009 provides for the operation of the courts in the event of an emergency and grants the Chief Justice the authority to declare a judicial emergency when there are emergency circumstances affecting one or more court facilities with such order limited to an initial duration of 30 days but renewable for 30 day periods. It allows the Chief Justice to order the conducting of courts outside their normal county, extend statutes of limitations, and similar measures.

In 2010, several states are looking at similar measures.

Georgia’s HB 185 authorizes the Chief Justice to extend the duration of a judicial emergency order when a public health emergency exists until the emergency ends (currently there is a maximum of 60 days).

Virginia’s HB 883 sets out a procedure for the Supreme Court to follow in entering an order declaring a judicial emergency when there is a disaster as defined in the Commonwealth’s Emergency Services and Disaster Law. The bill permits the judicial emergency order to suspend, toll, extend, or otherwise grant relief from time limits or filing requirements in any court affected by the order and allows designation of a neighboring jurisdiction as proper venue for civil and criminal proceedings.

The end of Virginia’s Judicial Council?

Readers may recall a post several weeks ago that looked at the possibility that Virginia would lose its Judicial Council. According to the Virginia Lawyer’s blog, the bill to do just that advanced out of subcommittee earlier this week and is now on its way to the full House Courts of Justice committee.

Judicial Councils

Judicial Councils vary from state to state, ranging from advisory bodies to formal policy makers and setters. Three states are wrestling with the possibility of eliminating these bodies.

Virginia’s HB 240 would eliminate the Council and transfer its responsibilities to the Supreme Court or the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court (the official title for the state court administrator).

New Hampshire, on the other hand, is seeking to save its Judicial Council. In 2009, the state’s legislature passed as part of its appropriations bill a provision (144:87) automatically ending “all non-regulatory boards, commissions, councils, advisory committees, and task forces in state government created by statute or administrative rule” on June 30, 2011 unless new authorizing legislation was approved. HB 1689 would keep the Judicial Council in operation.

Tennessee’s Judicial Council is facing a similar automatic sunset. Statutorily, the Council expired June 30, 2009 and is currently in its one-year “wind down” phase. HB 1016 and SB 374 would extend it until June 2017 while HB 1102 and SB 373 would grant it only until June 2010. HB 1102 was approved on a 90-5 vote on June 3, 2009 while the Senate version was deferred until 2010.