Ashton Marra Published

Lawmakers Receive Update on Magistrate Court Study


In between debating special session bills this week, lawmakers managed to have a few of their regularly scheduled interim meetings. During one of those meetings, legislators were updated by a national group on a study of the state’s magistrate system.

The study of the state’s magistrate system started following the 2013 legislative session during which lawmakers faced some debate over magistrate pay.

Currently, magistrates in the state are grouped into two classifications based on county population. It has been the practice of the state to compensate magistrates in larger counties at a higher level, under the assumption that they see more cases.

“There was a lot of discussion about the varying workloads of magistrates in different counties to try to make sure we were comparing apples to apples as compared to apples to oranges,” Senate Judiciary Chair Corey Palumbo said Tuesday.

As a condition of passing the salary increase for a small number of magistrates, lawmakers required a study into the court system. It is being conducted by The National Center for State Courts, a non-partisan, nonprofit research and consulting service based in Williamsburg, Virginia.

“Imagine that you have one county that has primarily traffic cases and one county that has primarily misdemeanor cases even though they both have the same case load. The county with more misdemeanor cases is going to have more work in its courts,” Cynthia Lee with the NCSC told lawmakers.

The NCSC has come up with their own method to determining the workload for magistrates and from that system, they can determine how many magistrates are necessary for a given county.

The system is called a weighted caseload model and is calculated using three factors:

  • case filings- the number of cases of a certain type filed each year
  • case weights- the number of minutes it takes a magistrate to complete a specific case
  • year value- the total number of minutes a magistrate has per year to do case work.

The model is focused on the types of cases, not necessarily the number filed and helps show the actual workload for magistrates, deputies and their clerks.

Of the 97 percent of magistrates who participated in the West Virginia study, they on average spent the most amount of time with mental health cases at 213 minutes per case, the least on traffic citations at about 4 minutes.

Juvenile abuse and neglect cases average at 91 minutes and personal safety, similar to domestic violence cases, averaged 80 minutes per case, both on the higher end of the time spectrum.

With the break down of time spent, the center then added up those minutes and divided by the year value. That gives them the specific number of magistrates that county needs to run its judicial system properly. With this method the center is determining how West Virginia should allocate its magistrates.

Lee said sharing magistrates across county lines could create efficiencies but it must be done in a way that preserves the integrity of the court system.

Lawmakers questioned if sharing magistrates between counties was legal in terms of election procedures, but Lee said that’s a determination legislators themselves will have to make.

Palumbo expects the final recommendations from the center to be available in the fall so the legislature can discuss those findings and possibly propose legislation to change the state’s magistrate system during the 2015 legislative session.