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A cut too deep

With a state budget billions of dollars out of balance, the Virginia General Assembly clearly faced some tough decisions this year in regards to what constitutes a necessary state program and what counts as extra and therefore dispensable.

State legislators were forced to choose between cutting programs that could impact education, health care, retirement and myriad other programs that rely on the largesse of Virginia’s taxpayers. In the end, some quasi-governmental programs that probably should have been cut remain in operation, but almost no government-funded operation emerged unscathed from the process.

Anyone with children in school will likely notice some changes in education as a result of those decisions. Those who rely on Medicare — and those who provide services to Medicare patients — also are likely to suffer the effects of the state’s decision to cut back on its share of Medicare reimbursement. The Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters, which has the state’s highest percentage of Medicare patients, is especially hurting from the changes.

Legislators took a hard situation and made hard choices to address it. That’s their job.

But folks in Western Tidewater can be forgiven for wondering just what the Assembly was thinking when it decided not to fund a replacement for Circuit Court Judge Westbrook Parker, who has announced his retirement.

Parker’s Fifth Judicial Circuit encompasses Suffolk, Franklin, Isle of Wight and Southampton. Suffolk alone handled 2,375 criminal cases and 1,232 civil cases in 2009.

The decision not to replace one third of the judges who sit on the bench for the district is likely to lead to a crushing workload for those who remain. In fact, according to Suffolk Circuit Court Clerk Randy Carter, the decision probably will mean that Parker will continue to hear cases on a substitute basis for some time to come.

“What happens when he goes away is that the regular sitting judges will have to spend more hours here, and we’ll probably have to utilize retired judges more,” Carter said recently. “He might be back here some.”

While there is nothing wrong with having someone with Parker’s experience and wisdom hearing criminal and civil cases, legislators should understand the unsustainability of the situation they’ve handed the judiciary in Suffolk.

Delegate Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, says the vacant judgeships could be revisited by the General Assembly if state revenues improve. Lawmakers would be wise to do so.