By MICHAEL J. ROMANO
CLARKSBURG -- We all hate "tit for tat," but the recent article by Richie Heath, director of the so-called Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse (CALA), again demanding the state expand government by creating an intermediate court of appeals, begs a response.
By his own admission and (without apology), Heath advocates spending somewhere around $25 million a year of taxpayer money -- which he refers to as a "small price" -- for another layer of courts that our state does not need.
Perhaps Mr. Heath has never tried a case or thought about filing an appeal, but he certainly fails to appreciate that all losers want a second chance to win rendering his cries on their behalf without substance.
I am sure he appreciates that the additional delay of another appeal only benefits the financially strong over the weak, the unjust over the just, and insurance companies over everyone else by adding months if not years to every case.
Of course, a $25 million a year intermediate court would benefit all losers -- plaintiffs, defendants, and criminals alike -- but that is not why it is opposed by the West Virginia Association for Justice, whose members represent consumers, working families, and small businesses who lose as many cases as they win.
An intermediate court would needlessly burden taxpayers in our state where every appeal already is reviewed and an opinion issued by our Supreme Court and would simply delay justice and cost thousands additional expense to everyone involved in the justice system.
But the real problem with Mr. Heath's argument is that it is not based on facts, but, instead, on unsupported conclusions sometimes supported by other peoples' self-serving conclusions. At the same time, he refuses to explain why CALA continues to badmouth West Virginia --chasing away jobs and economic development -- while we have fallen from the 35th to 39th state for the lowest number of lawsuits per citizen (again, lowest is good here).
He also won't explain CALA's negative view of our business climate when we have been named as one of the top 15 cheapest states to do business for more than a decade. Most of all he won't explain why CALA's rich donors are secret while claiming to be a grassroots group.
Mr. Heath's platitudes expose the false rhetoric that CALA spews about our state every day. CALA has no interest in seeking justice, but only in creating a system where big out-of-state special interests are always the winners and where insurance companies can financially starve folks into a less than a fair settlement.
Heath also ignores the fact that then-Gov. Joe Manchin's Commission on Judicial Reform made its recommendation to create an intermediate court before our Supreme Court's rule change mandating that a written opinion be issued in granting or denying every appeal filed. Some of the Commission's members have stated these new rules should be given a chance to work before we expand government with a new layer of courts with an annual price tag of $25 million in tax dollars.
But Mr. Heath is good at spinning facts. He claims that the West Virginia Supreme Court is one of the busiest in the country. True, but irrelevant to the question of whether we need another layer of courts.
The reality is that historically more than 50 percent of the West Virginia Supreme Court's case load is direct appeals of workers' compensation claims -- not civil or criminal cases. If CALA wanted to make a real difference, it would spend its energy demanding a special court only for Workers' Compensation Administrative Appeals which immediately would reduce the Supreme Court's workload by more than half and make it one of the least busy courts in the country.
Of course, you never will hear CALA make a common sense demand like that. Improving our civil justice system that forces folks play by the rules that keep us safe is not their goal. CALA has a secret agenda to make it more difficult for consumers, working people, and small businesses to find justice.
Litigation always is expensive as it is, and Heath and CALA already know that by adding another layer of appeals, the time to complete a case will be increased by months, if not years. The cost of litigation will be increased by tens of thousands of dollars in every case, and the beneficiaries of such a court will be the financially powerful and the losers would be all of the rest of us.
It is up to us, the citizens and the elected officials of West Virginia, to tell Mr. Heath and CALA that enough is enough. That we are tired of them chasing away jobs, economic development and opportunity for our state. That they must stop telling the rest of the world we're a "judicial hellhole" and a "bad place to do business." We must demand they stop spreading their false propaganda about our State. We don't need the kind of help that Heath and CALA offer for the benefit of the few and the detriment of the many.
Heath and CALA need not worry that the legal profession is trying to protect their own financial interests by opposing the intermediate court. To the contrary, lawyers will always make a living not only because of their training and expertise, but also because the strong -- whether financially or criminally -- will always try to take advantage of the weak. It's just part of the human condition.
One need look no further than the recent report on the Upper Big Branch mine disaster which claimed the lives of 29 brave miners caused by corporate greed trumping worker safety. Government, despite its best efforts, will never have the funds or political will to protect us from folks willing to break the rules to increase corporate profits. Only a strong civil justice system that encourages everyone to follow the rules provides a real deterrent forcing big out-of-state businesses to care as much about people as they do profits.
The civil justice system remains the only level "playing field" in our system of government where money and political power have no influence. That is why folks like Heath and CALA get so much secret money to destroy the civil justice system that protects all of the people equally–not just the rich and powerful.
Romano is the immediate past president of the West Virginia Association for Justice. His one-year term ended June 2.