THEIR VIEW: Judicial system is hurting West Virginia

By STEVE ROBERTS

CHARLESTON -- Senate Bill 307 -- legislation to establish an intermediate court of appeals in West Virginia -- passed overwhelmingly in the state Senate this past legislative session. Gov. Tomblin supported this effort and encouraged passage of the bill.

Unfortunately, Senate Bill 307 died in the House of Delegates even though many members of that body supported the concept.

An intermediate court of appeals would ensure that a party that lost in a local trial court has a guaranteed right of appeal. It would also put in place a system for review of the decisions to make sure that the law and facts are applied correctly in each case.

While the establishment of a meaningful right of appeal and an intermediate court of appeals is one of the West Virginia Chamber's top priorities, we are not alone in our support.

Two independent state commissions have recommended that West Virginia establish this body.

The Independent Commission on Judicial Reform - headed by former U. S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and former U. S. Senator Carte Goodwin - recommended the establishment of an intermediate court in 2009.

Additionally, the Commission on the Future of the Judiciary - established by the West Virginia Supreme Court itself in 1999 - also recommended the establishment of an intermediate court.

Consider that:

* West Virginia is one of seven states nationwide without an intermediate court.

* The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals is already the busiest appellate court of its type in the United States.

* According to the state Supreme Court's own 2009 Annual Report, our court had 3,954 cases filed.

* In 2006, only 179 cases of the 47,998 acted upon by WV circuit courts were "heard" by our Supreme Court.

* The West Virginia public supports the establishment of an intermediate court of appeals.

A statewide poll found that a majority of voters support ensuring an automatic right of appeal by establishing an intermediate appellate court in West Virginia.

In fact, support soared to 85 percent when survey respondents learned that the vast majority of civil and criminal cases seeking appeal were rejected.

In 2010, the West Virginia Supreme Court developed its own "enhanced rules" for additional appellate review. As the busiest appellate court in nation, how can they assure a full and comprehensive review of the additional cases that are now before them?

Another concern is that continued implementation of these rules over time is at the sole discretion of the Supreme Court itself, and not guaranteed by legislation. In effect, the court can withdraw or change the enhanced rules whenever it wishes.

We only have to look back a few years to see how Chesapeake Energy abandoned hundreds of millions of dollars in plans to establish a headquarters in West Virginia because the company was denied an appeal of a major verdict against it.

The right to a meaningful appeal is fundamentally a fairness issue, and failure to establish such a court can have disastrous consequences.

The national perception of West Virginia as a state that has an out-of-step judicial system will continue as long as our Legislature fails to make fair and meaningful reforms.

Passage of Senate Bill 307 will align West Virginia with most of the other states in the country and provide better justice to all our citizens, in both civil and criminal matters.

I urge the governor to place Senate Bill 307 on the agenda for consideration during the next Special Session of the Legislature, and I hope the House of Delegates will join the Senate in passing this essential legislation.

Roberts is president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce.

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