CHARLESTON – The president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce sees some progress in terms of legal reform, but he said he still would like to see more.
Steve Roberts said the biggest recent improvement has been the state Supreme Court's revised rules for appellate procedure that went into effect last year.
"The National Center for State Courts says West Virginia has moved into the category of states having an appeal of right," Roberts said. "Because of this rule change, the court must review appeals."
In 2011, the NCSC's Court Statistics Project staff reviewed West Virginia's revised rules. The state formerly was listed as having "appeals by permission."
"Based on the process outlined in the new rules, the court does not have the option of denying permission for appellate review," said William Raftery, analyst with the NCSC. "Accordingly, that process meets the CSP's definition for an 'appeal by right.'
"Having met the CSP's definition for appeal by right carries no weight outside of the Court Statistics Project. Such classification is for CSP reporting purposes only and does not bestow any legal definition on the Court's practices."
Roberts says this change is a good start.
"In fairness, we have to say we (the state Chamber) were skeptical of the implementation of the court's rule," he said. "And it's only been in effect one term so far, and we are evaluating it. But we are pleased so far, and the Court is pleased. This is a major, major improvement."
Still, Roberts said more can be done to improve West Virginia's court system.
"The West Virginia Chamber continues to be the leading advocate for fair and balanced courts in the state," he said. "We continue to belief West Virginia should join the approximately 45 states that have passed some form of limits on punitive damages, limits on joint and several liability and changes to the collateral source rules.
"We continue to believe an appeal of right is very important, but we are aware that the National Center for State Courts now says the Supreme Court's rule changes gave the automatic appeal right.
"We're taking our time to make sure we understand all of this. Still, for us, things haven't changed too much. We are aware the Legislative and the House, in particular, hasn't been eager to embrace the reforms we've been pushing most."
Roberts said the Chamber has a good relationship with lawmakers.
"We want to work with them to ensure West Virginia has the fairest and most balanced courts," he said. "At the end of the day, that's what we all want.
As for the current legislative session, Roberts said the state Chamber already is working on a few legal reforms.
"We are working on a small change to the wage payment and collection act, and we are working on some human resource issue law," he said. "But our big issues still are limits on punitive damages and more limits on joint and several. We would like to see it go up to a higher number."
Roberts also said the Chamber is "cautiously optimistic" about the creation of a business court. And he said the Chamber will push that idea this session.
"I do think it has a good chance this session," he said. "It makes a lot of sense in West Virginia. It has worked well in other states."
Roberts said the Chamber also will be working to push Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's economic development agenda during this legislative session.
"It's clear West Virginia is making significant progress," he said. "State finances are better than most, the average incomes are rising faster, the unemployment rate is lower than national average.
"We're trending in the right direction. But that can accelerate, so let's keep fixing things to make that happen."