Business court opens for business

MARTINSBURG – West Virginia’s new business court is, well, open for business.

Members of the state judiciary on Wednesday night held an unveiling ceremony for the court, which is located at the Berkeley County Judicial Center in an office that formerly housed a law library. The state Legislature passed a bill in 2010 that created the court.

“If you think about it, getting anything significant done in government in less than three years, it’s phenomenal,” said Circuit Judge Christopher Wilkes, who will serve as the first chairman of the business court.

Wilkes joked that he was initially wary of a letter he received from Supreme Court administrator Steve Canterbury that began with, “Congratulations, you have been selected to ...” because of the possibility of extra work.

But Wilkes added that he and the panel that designed the group studied business courts in other states such as Delaware and North Carolina and crafted an idea they feel will work for a geographically challenged state like West Virginia.

As it opens, three judges make up the business court roster, with a fourth coming before the end of the year. Canterbury says eventually there will be seven judges, geographically displaced, who will hear cases.

Each judge also will have special training in business law, too, said Supreme Court Justice Robin Jean Davis, who added the goal for each case will be a resolution within 10 months.

“In the business world, time is money,” she said. “The litigants are guaranteed not just a quick hearing, but an expert hearing.”

Any business-to-business case filed in the state can be removed to the business court in one of two ways. The judge originally assigned the case will decide if it’s ripe for the business court, or the attorneys handling the case can petition the chief justice of the Supreme Court, currently Menis Ketchum.

If the chief justice agrees, the business court judges will put it to a vote.

Cases will travel to the judges, while administrative matters will be handled at the Martinsburg office.

Canterbury has implemented a video conferencing system that he began using in the late 1990s when he worked for the Regional Jail Authority. He noted that some of the trips to state jails were “punitive,” and the video conferencing system allowed for video arraignments.

For the business court, it will be used mainly for mediation and pretrial discussions, he said. Up to 18 individuals can participate on the screen, though “their heads get a little small,” Canterbury joked.

An electronic filing system will not be used. It is only used in West Virginia for mass tort litigation.

West Virginia’s courts system has been the subject of criticism by the business community in the past because of a lack of intermediate appellate court between the circuit court system and the Supreme Court, along with a lack of a right of appeal.

The latter was addressed by a change in appellate rules that require the Supreme Court to issue a written decision anytime it denies an appeal from a circuit court judgment.

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