CHARLESTON – Historic changes are taking place at the state Capitol as Republicans have a majority in both houses of the Legislature for the first time since the 1930s.
Bill Cole and Tim Armstead have been elected Senate President and Speaker of the House, respectively. And both have said legal reform will be a key component of this year’s legislative session, which started Jan. 14.
“The underlying problem for the last 80 or so years is that we have not been good stewards of our state government,” Cole said in a recent interview. “All we’ve done, we’ve done on the back of coal. We were able to ignore things that were important to make us a business-friendly state. I’m talking about jobs.
“It’s about creating an environment in which business can thrive and employ people. We don’t have that. We’re an outlier in so many regards. We have to fix that. It’s a sue-and-settle mentality. Write a letter, get a check and move on.”
Armstead calls civil justice reform “a matter of fairness.”
“The legal climate is a major factor employers consider when deciding to locate and bring jobs to the state, Armstead said. “We need to address the areas of our court system that have allowed civil litigation to result in unfair verdicts instead of reasonably compensating injured individuals.
“West Virginians deserve a fair, well-balanced and predictable judicial system.”
Cole said Republican leaders aren’t ready to tip their hand yet about every legal reform issue they might address this session, but he said there are a few topics that definitely will be considered, such as property owners’ rights against tresspassers.
“We need to make sure that our property owners are protected against trespassers,” he said. “Now, it’s as simple as you step in hole and you can sue over it.”
Cole also mentioned comparative fault, joint and several reform, punitive damages caps and venue shopping as other topics that could be examined.
“But, you have to remember the pressure we’re under with the budget,” he said, noting the $200 million shortfall. “So, we have to be careful that things we do are revenue neutral at worst. If we tighten up that, it could be a benefit.
“One idea that we really need to go to work on is an intermediate appellate court. I appreciate what the Supreme Court has done, but that doesn’t get it done. We’re one of only nine states in country that doesn’t have the right to appeal.
“But, like I said, the problem there is how we’re going to pay for it. It is very important to business, but we need to figure out how to pay for it and fix the shortfall.”
Armstead echoed Cole, and added other possible agenda items.
“For the past several years, the Republican caucus has introduced reasonable, balanced proposals to correct the inequities in the law,” the Kanawha County lawmaker said. “I anticipate many of these same proposals will be considered this session, including reforms to venue, joint and several liability process and trespass liability.
“I will also not rule out the consideration of non-partisan judicial elections and consideration of an intermediate appellate court.”
In his annual State of the State address, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin didn’t mention legal reform. But the Democrat did speak about the need for bipartisan work in the Statehouse.
Both Armstead and Cole said they hope both sides of the aisle work together on these reforms.
“As West Virginians, we value fair-mindedness and taking a practical approach to problem-solving,” Armstead said. “Our goal is to pass meaningful tort reforms that will bring a renewed sense of confidence to our state’s court system.
“We will advance practical and corrective measures that benefit all West Virginians and hope that we will have widespread, bipartisan support.”
Cole said he’s confident the sense of bipartisanship will be noticeable.
“We have, obviously, majorities in both houses,” he said. “But, I think the governor is pre-disposed to go along with us on a lot of these ideas. I know he’ll push back on some of them, but he’s a guy who is about business and trying to do great things for West Virginia. He’ll be with us on a lot of this legislation.
“If not, we’ll have the opportunity to override his veto if we feel that strongly about it. It’s about doing things that are right for West Virginia and our future.”
Armstead said legal reform is key to moving the state forward.
“Unfortunately, recent opinions and cases have removed the predictability of the court system, and promoted the cause of jackpot justice in our state,” he said. “If we are going to revitalize our economy and create jobs, we need to address the legal climate to move West Virginia forward, while still preserving all citizens' rights to a fair recovery.”