The conflict docket: What happens when judges have conflicts of interest

VIRGINIA BEACH — In General District Court here, cases that could pose a conflict of interest for presiding judges are sent to a “conflict docket,” a courtroom where out-of-town judges can rule on local cases objectively.

The conflict dockets occur once as month and contain cases that might involve defendants or plaintiffs that are Virginia Beach judges, police, city employees, or attorneys with personal ties to judges.

“If a judge recuses himself, he will likely see if any other judges are available to hear the case that day,” said Kristen Paulding, an attorney in Virginia Beach. “If another Judge’s docket has cleared he or she may be available to hear the case.”

If a person involved in the case is a former judge or city employee with close ties to the courts — Virginia Beach has a conflict docket “at the end of the month where they bring in a judge from an outside jurisdiction to hear all of the conflict cases,” Paulding said.

The court clerk’s office typically decides which cases go before which judges and makes recommendations about potential conflicts of interest, Paulding said.

Prosecutors are also required to notify the clerk when potential conflicts arise and outside prosecutors are needed. The Virginia Supreme Court selects a replacement judge.

Mike Davies, court administrator for the Virginia Beach Circuit Court Clerk’s office, said that, although the circuit court does vet possible conflicts for case, it does not have a separate conflict docket.

“Every court has a different way of doing things,” Davies said. “Ultimately, the judges will decide whether to recuse themselves or not.”

Once a judge makes that determination, they will consider whether it’s possible that other judges on the bench have a conflict as well.

The chief judge of that court is notified, and all judges of that court look over the matter to decide whether ruling on the case would pose a conflict for them.

If the entire bench has a conflict with a case, the state supreme court will designate a new judge from outside that jurisdiction.

The “vast majority” of cases do not have conflicts though, Davies said.

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