In many ways, 1974 was a watershed year for the West Virginia Supreme Court. In November of that year, voters ratified the Judicial Reorganization Amendment--a sweeping, top-to-bottom revision of West Virginia’s judicial system that took effect on January 1, 1976.
The old justice of the peace system was abolished. “JPs,” as they were known, were often criticized for lack of formal training, lack of accountability, and a pay system that jeopardized their neutrality. Instead of JPs, smaller civil and criminal proceedings would now be heard by magistrates who were paid a regular salary by the state and were overseen by the Supreme Court. All other courts, including circuit courts, were also brought under the Supreme Court’s administrative oversight. The vision of the framers was the creation of a unitary system in which the Supreme Court was given general supervisory control over all other courts in the state.
Not surprisingly, all of this was a significant undertaking. Under Article VIII, Section 3 of the West Virginia Constitution, the Supreme Court was directed to hire an Administrative Director who would serve at its will and pleasure. Thus was born what came to be known as “the Administrative Office of the Courts.” Under the leadership of the Administrative Director, this office assumes responsibility for the day-to-day business of overseeing the state’s judicial system with its 70 circuit judges, 45 family court judges, and 158 magistrates.
Space will not permit me to identify every office, division and commission that comes under the Administrative Director’s purview. But a small sampling will give a flavor for the kind of behind-the-scenes work that happens every day in the Supreme Court’s administrative offices.
Each of the individual court systems has a director who is responsible for administrative support and training for judges, clerks and other court staff. Many years ago, I served as the Director of Magistrate Courts and I can tell you firsthand what a daunting job it was. I was responsible for scheduling educational conferences for all of the magistrates and their staff and for giving newly-elected magistrates a “crash course” before taking the bench. I served as a liaison to the Legislature on magistrate court issues. I developed magistrate court policies and revised their civil, criminal and administrative rules. I also visited the magistrates in the field, viewing their facilities for myself, listening to their concerns, and assisting in whatever way I could. On top of all of this, I served as a legal resource for the magistrates--basically making myself available 24/7 to answer legal questions or to provide a sounding board to help them work through any thorny issues they might be facing.
The work performed by the Division of Technical Services has become increasingly important. Not only is this division responsible for overseeing computer systems, networking, etc., for the entire court system, it is also spearheading the move toward electronic filing. Eventually, all of the courts in the state will provide remote, electronic access to their dockets and will require electronic filing--virtually eliminating paper filings and saving many thousands of dollars in the process. Naturally, this kind of undertaking requires a massive commitment of time, money and manpower.
The Supreme Court has an annual budget of over $120,000,000. Much of its budget is devoted to payroll. The Division of Human Services is responsible for providing payroll services for hundreds of judicial employees, along with health insurance and other personnel matters. The Division of Financial Management also has an important role to play in administering the Supreme Court’s budget, including purchasing and auditing. Whether a judge in New Cumberland needs a new computer or a clerk in Princeton needs a new photocopier, it’s all routed through the Supreme Court’s financial offices.
I hope this blog gives you some small idea of what the Administrative Office of the Courts is all about. Take it from a former insider: It would be impossible for the Supreme Court to perform all of its administrative responsibilities without the dedicated, hardworking folks from this office. Those of us on the outside seldom see the work they do. But, clearly, we owe them all a debt of gratitude.