CHARLESTON – In a number of respects, West Virginia’s civil justice system is finally beginning to come in line with other states across the country, thanks to the hard work and leadership of the West Virginia Legislature, especially State Senate President Bill Cole and House Speaker Tim Armstead.
The legal reforms that were passed with bi-partisan support and have now become law begin the process of improving our notorious legal system, which has been labeled a “Judicial Hellhole” and last in legal fairness for many years.
Notably, however, West Virginia continues to be the only state in the country that doesn’t provide an appeal of right for either civil or criminal litigants. Also, our state is one of nine that doesn’t have an intermediate court of appeals, which makes our state an outlier in this regard when compared to the majority of other states.
The West Virginia Supreme Court notes on its website that it is “the busiest appellate court of its type in the United States.” With only five justices, the court is not equipped to fully address all appeals from trial courts. It should be considering all important cases and issuing carefully weighed, signed opinions that build our state’s body of law.
The Fiscal Year 2016 budget of West Virginia’s judicial system is $139 million, a mere 3 percent of the state’s budget. Of the $139 million, over $125 million is allocated for employees and expenses, which is an incredibly large percentage. As our state leaders look at ways to make ends meet with the state budget, perhaps an audit of the budget of the Supreme Court of Appeals would go a long way in providing confidence and ensuring that taxpayers’ dollars are being spent appropriately, efficiently and effectively.
The personal injury lawyer opponents of a much-needed intermediate court are arguing that our state can’t afford one. There is no doubt our state’s budget will present a challenge for legislators. There is also no doubt that trial lawyers have benefited the most from our notorious, broken legal system.
In recent months, we’ve seen the rewards of lawsuit-driven greed in headlines across our state. A million-dollar Learjet deal uncovered on national television plus a mansion listed for sale with a nearly $20 million asking price have exposed the lifestyles of some millionaire personal injury lawyers and one of our supreme court justices.
For far too long, trial lawyers have taken advantage of a legal system that has been out of step with most other states. They have spent millions of dollars supporting candidates for public office who opposed reforms that would have made our legal system more fair and impartial for all litigants. Perhaps it would be appropriate to ask these millionaire trial lawyers to help pay for the intermediate court of appeals from their lawsuit riches.
West Virginia has only one level of appeal of trial court decisions, and that is to the state Supreme Court. A vast majority of states have two. It’s time to bring West Virginia’s appeal process into the mainstream by adding an intermediate court of appeals.
Stauffer is executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse.