By STEVE ROBERTS

CHARLESTON -- Employers and caring citizens throughout West Virginia are rightly concerned about our state's legal and judicial climate.

Various national studies show West Virginia's legal climate to be very poorly perceived. Organizations as prominent as The American Tort Reform Association, The Institute for Legal Reform and others have rated our state as less than satisfactory in its overall delivery of justice for all.

Some slow progress is apparently being made. Until last year, the National Center for State Courts said West Virginia was the only state in the nation that did not guarantee an automatic right of appeal for the decisions of our state's circuit courts. The West Virginia Chamber of Commerce became very concerned about this situation and began pointing to this problem.

The media correctly picked up on this theme, and the West Virginia Legislature followed suit. This culminated in a bill, passed by the West Virginia Senate, that would have created an Intermediate Appellate Court whose job would be to review all appealed decisions from circuit courts.

Perhaps to forestall legislative action, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, for the first time in over 30 years, changed its rules to provide for reviewing all appeals of decisions rendered by the circuit courts. As a result, the National Center for State Courts has now said that West Virginia does provide an automatic right of appeal of cases that are presented before the high court from the circuit courts. The West Virginia Chamber of Commerce applauds the justices of the Supreme Court of Appeals for taking this action and ensuring that West Virginia is no longer the only state in the nation without some mechanism for an automatic right of appeal.

Forty-three states in our nation manage appeals through an Intermediate Appellate Court and the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce continues to believe an Intermediate Appellate Court makes sense for the citizens of our state. We are, however, pleased to recognize the progress that has come as a result of the high court changing its rules to provide for written responses to all appeals presented to the court.

It is now our job to review the thoroughness and usefulness of these appeals and to determine whether the West Virginia Supreme Court's written responses provide sufficient information to appellants to be of maximum use. In the meantime, The Chamber recognizes the changed rules and acknowledges as progress the new approach to appeals.

All of this is of huge importance to West Virginia's working families and those who hope to see their children and grand-children find jobs within the borders of our state. Total employment in West Virginia has declined precipitously during the last five years, despite the strong need for energy that has provided an increase in jobs in mining and natural gas production.

Manufacturing has been hard hit, as have insurance and banking as sources of employment. If West Virginia does not fix some of its fundamental and most basic problems, including the need for justice for all, companies will continue heading for the borders.

Nonetheless, this holiday season we can be pleased that the West Virginia Supreme Court saw the need for change and adjusted its rule. As we enter the new year, let's hope the rule change is one of substance, as the National Center for State Courts believes, helping West Virginia get on the road to having a model legal and judicial climate.

Roberts is president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce.

More News