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Senate Judiciary reworks House bill to reallocate county magistrates

MORGANTOWN – The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday revamped a House bill to reallocate county magistrates.

HB 2910, as it came from the House, intended to reallocate county magistrates, reducing the current number of 158 down to 149. It assigned two magistrates to each county, with additional seats allotted or seats removed based on a population formula. In cases where the formula would remove a seat, the state Supreme Court would review caseload to determine if that seat is needed.

The Judiciary version does something entirely different. It raises the number of magistrates from 158 to 160, with one going to Berkeley County and one unallocated.

It authorizes the Supreme Court to appoint magistrates to temporarily serve outside their county for certain specified cases and calls on the court to develop program for statewide after-hours coverage on a circuit or regional basis. It also calls on the court to develop a program, conducted on a four-year basis to allocate magistrates statewide based on need.

Keith Hoover, Supreme Court deputy administrative director, talked about a caseload study that the court will be conducting through the National Center for State Courts.

Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, pointed out that the last time a study was done, the data was too old to be useful by the time it reached the Legislature. “We’ve been through this so many times and have gotten absolutely nowhere. It’s getting to be a crisis in some places.”

He told the Senators that the court has learned some lessons about using technology more efficiently during COVID and it could be possible to combine resources and use one after-hours magistrate to handle multiple counties. That would spare magistrates in two-magistrate counties from being on call essentially around the clock.

State law currently restricts what the court can do, he said. “We would frankly like to use this mechanism to go to the laboratory and experiment a little bit.” And develop some new rules from that.

Sen. Mark Mynard, R-Wayne, was able to add an amendment to raise the maximum number of magistrates to 170.

The bill is second reading on Friday for potential adoption of the committee amendment.

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