Valley Judgeships Unsettled

Lawmakers Say General Assembly Will Fill Two Slots During April Veto Session

Posted: March 2, 2013

HARRISONBURG — Although the regular session of the Virginia General Assembly has wrapped up, the fate of two local judgeships remains up in the air.
 
Rockingham County General District Court Judge William Heatwole retired in December, while Circuit Court Judge James Lane plans to retire in July.
 
Funding has been allocated for the circuit court spot but not for the general district court judgeship. It’s possible, legislators say, that a temporary full-time substitute judge might be funded for the 25th Judicial District.
 
“It’s disappointing because the caseload in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County are beyond what one judge can handle,” said attorney Grant Penrod, president of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham County Bar Association. “I foresee delays.”
 
Legislators say judges will be appointed in the upcoming veto session, which begins April 3.
 
Lane serves the 26th District. In addition to Harrisonburg, the district also includes circuit courts in Clarke, Frederick, Shenandoah and Warren counties and the city of Winchester.
 
Heatwole represented the 25th Judicial District. He was based in Waynesboro, but presided over cases in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County.
 
Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, said there is a study under way by the Virginia Supreme Court to analyze jurisdiction caseloads. Obenshain said the judicial district lines might be realigned depending on the outcome.
 
If the districts remain the same, he said, he hopes the study will shed some light on where Heatwole’s replacement will be placed.
 
“It’s my hope that next year we will have a determination whether it will be in the 25th or 26th,” Obenshain said.
 
Del. Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave, said the general district court judgeship needs to be handled in the veto session, even if it’s a short-term fix.
 
“Something needs to be done,” he said.
 
Obenshain, Landes and other legislators representing the two judicial districts plan to meet before the April 3 session to discuss whom they will nominate for the judgeships.
 
The bar association believes that Bruce Albertson or Bill Helsley, who both practice law in Harrisonburg, should replace Lane on the bench. The bar also nominated James Clough to replace Heatwole.
 
Albertson is a criminal defense attorney who most notably represented Donna Hockman, who was convicted and sentenced to life in 2009 for killing her boyfriend, Dustin Stanley.
 
Hensley, also a criminal defense attorney, unsuccessfully sought to replace retiring Judge John McGrath in 2008.
 
Clough has a Harrisonburg practice and handles domestic relations and bankruptcy cases.
 
The bar’s nominations have been largely symbolic in the past; most have not gone on to be selected by the General Assembly in recent years.
 
Contact Pete DeLea at 574-6278 or pdelea@dnronline.com


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