When the sky wasn’t fall­ing

Rappahannock News - - COMMENT -

Much has been made of late about Rappahannock County of­fi­cials be­ing on the tardy side of ad­her­ing to state codes, from the timely post­ing of of­fi­cial meet­ing min­utes (since re­solved) to up­dat­ing the com­pre­hen­sive plan (un­re­solved, but get­ting there).

Sev­eral ex­cuses are of­fered for such pro­cras­ti­na­tion: man­power short­ages, em­ploy­ees come and go, or things sim­ply slip through the cracks. His­tory tells us this is noth­ing new for Rappahannock County, which has one of the small­est gov­ern­ments in the state and, like the county and its cit­i­zenry, tends to move at a slower pace than the rest of Vir­ginia.

Take the case of James M. Set­tle, Clerk of the Cir­cuit Court of Rappahannock County dur­ing the 1940s and 50s. Set­tle never rushed to ful­fill state code re­quire­ments that ex­isted in his day — even when un­der threat from the state’s high­est court.

“Dear Sir,” M.B. Watts, Clerk of the Vir­ginia Supreme Court in Rich­mond, wrote to Set­tle on March 10, 1948. “I find that I have re­ceived no re­ports from you since June, 1947, as to the busi­ness of your court.

“You un­der­stand, of course, that the

statute (secs. 3405 and 3406 of the Code) re­quires you to send these re­ports monthly in or­der that this Court may make a re­port to the Leg­is­la­ture as to the amount of busi­ness trans­acted in each court.

“Will you kindly let me have as soon as pos­si­ble such re­ports as you have not fur­nished. If you need forms for mak­ing these re­ports let me know and I will gladly send them to you.”

Two days later, ac­cord­ing to Set­tle’s neatly writ­ten notes at the bot­tom of the let­ter, he sent to the Supreme Court delin­quent monthly re­ports for June 1947 through Fe­bru­ary 1948. The re­ports pro­vided the num­ber of Rappahannock civil cases (ac­tions of law and chancery causes) and crim­i­nal cases (mis­de­meanors and felonies).

Rappahannock’s clerk should have been re­lieved to have the back­log com­pleted and mailed to Rich­mond, where af­ter re­view they would be for­warded to state law­mak­ers by Vir­ginia’s Supreme Court Chief Jus­tice Ed­ward Wren Hud­gins. And you’d think he would have been more care­ful in the fu­ture not to let such re­ports slip fall through the cracks

again.

“Dear Sir,” M.B. Watts wrote anew on Oct. 27, 1948. “I find that you are again be­hind in fur­nish­ing the re­ports of the busi­ness of your court. The last re­port I re­ceived was for Fe­bru­ary, 1948.

“Will you not kindly let me have re­ports cov­er­ing March to Oc­to­ber, 1948.”

Two days later, ac­cord­ing to Set­tle’s writ­ten notes, he com­pleted and mailed to Rich­mond a sec­ond stack of delin­quent re­ports, dated March through Septem­ber 1948.

The Vir­ginia Supreme Court had now put the Rappahannock court clerk on no­tice not once, but twice, and cer­tainly such an over­sight wouldn’t hap­pen again. Or would it?

“Dear Mr. Set­tle,” M.B. Watts wrote on Nov. 13, 1950, drop­ping the hon­orifics and ad­dress­ing the clerk by name. “I find that I have re­ceived no re­ports from you since June, 1949 [17 months and count­ing] as to the busi­ness of your court.”

Watts re­minded Set­tle that up­dated 1950 state codes, renum­bered 17-57 and 17-58, re­quired monthly re­ports be com­pleted and sub­mit­ted promptly.

Set­tle heard it all be­fore. This time, ac­cord­ing to his writ­ten notes, he took his time — nine days — to com­pile the over­due re­ports and ship them to Rich­mond.

No record is found of the high court ever tak­ing any dis­ci­plinary ac­tion against the court clerk. No record ex­ists of any Rappahannock County judge or gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial is­su­ing any sort of rep­ri­mand. No cit­i­zens took turns at the court­house lectern warn­ing the county fa­thers that Set­tle was derelict in his du­ties and not ad­her­ing to state codes.

Ap­par­ently ev­ery­body went about their busi­ness, and the county gov­ern­ment plugged along as it’s man­aged to do since 1833.

Ed­i­tor’s note: Let­ters to James M. Set­tle from M.B. Watts are among tens of thou­sands of pages of his­toric Rappahannock County doc­u­ments pre­served to­day on Court­house Row.

Let­ters to James M. Set­tle from M.B. Watts are among tens of thou­sands of pages of his­toric Rappahannock County doc­u­ments pre­served to­day on Court­house Row.

John Mc­caslin

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