Here is the prepared text of Chief Justice Robin Jean Davis' speech to the Wheeling Area Chamber of Commerce on May 16:
It's a great pleasure to be speaking to you today. And it's a pleasure to be here with two of my colleagues, Justice Maynard and Justice Benjamin. Although the tables are turned on me today. As chief justice, in our opinion conferences I always speak last!
The judicial system is often called the "third branch" of government. That doesn't mean we are the third-most important. It means, like the chief justice, we get the last word!
The other two branches, the governor and the Legislature, get the most attention. The executive administers laws that the Legislature makes.
But ultimately, we decide how those laws are interpreted and whether they are Constitutional. So we may have more control over how you do business than you think.
Unlike the governor and the Legislature, who can take up any issue they like, we can only rule on issues that come before us. We have to wait for someone to file a lawsuit or a petition.
But we have plenty of work.
There were 3,544 petitions filed at the Supreme Court in 2006, that's 561 more than during the previous year. The increase is almost entirely attributable to the 2,473 workers' compensation cases that were filed, an all-time high. That increase may be due to transitions in the administration of workers' compensation at the state agency level.
No other comparable appellate court in the country handles as many cases as West Virginia's Supreme Court. The most recent data from the National Center for State Courts – for 2004 – confirms again that our Supreme Court is the busiest appellate court of its type in the country. Our caseload exceeded by more than one thousand that of the next busiest state, Nevada. And it was more than the states of Delaware, Maine, North Dakota and Rhode Island combined.
West Virginia ranked fifth in the number of appeals filed per 100,000 population, behind the District of Columbia, Louisiana, Florida and Puerto Rico.
West Virginia's circuit courts are also busy.
Statistics from the Division of Criminal Justice Services indicate that in 2006, there were 47,170 cases filed in the circuit courts of West Virginia. Of those cases, 65.9 percent were civil, 18.5 percent were criminal and the rest – about 15.6 percent – were juvenile. There was an average of 1,522 cases filed per circuit.
Those civil cases include more than just litigation. The category includes domestic relations, domestic violence, adoption, mental health, guardianship and appeals from administrative agencies and magistrate courts.
Earlier I said the Court always has the final word. There is one exception. When it comes to the number of judges in West Virginia, the Legislature is supposed to have the final word.
The Legislature this year passed bills to add six circuit judges around West Virginia and ten Family Court judges. The bills would have maintained existing Circuit Court circuits but made several changes in Family Court circuits. The governor signed the Family Court bill but vetoed the Circuit Judge bill.
It is the Legislature's constitutional option of changing the map of the circuits, not the Court's, and not the governor's. If the Legislature chooses not to do so before December 31st, lawmakers can always add judges to any circuit during any session. It will certainly be interesting to see what happens.
I want to keep my remarks brief to leave ample time for questions.
I know many of you may want to know about specific cases that may be pending before us. While we can't talk about those, we are happy to talk about anything else.