When the sky wasn’t falling

By John McCaslin

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).

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.

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

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