Increased revenue means raises, computers, pension boost for courts

By Steve Korris | Jan 27, 2006

CHARLESTON – Last summer, the five Justices of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals gave their new administrator, Steve Canterbury, four days to prepare an annual budget for their Court and all circuit courts.

On the fourth day, Canterbury surprised them with a proposal to boost the budget from $83 million to almost $100 million. .

"I told them, this is higher than you expected," Canterbury said in a Jan. 24 interview.

He said he told the Justices that workers deserved raises, courts needed computers and the judicial pension fund needed to catch up with some of its liabilities.

"The majority agreed," he said.

The Justices convinced Gov. Joe Manchin to authorize $96.5 million for courts in the budget request he submitted to the Legislature this month.

Canterbury said a state surplus made the boost possible.

He said the price of oil has risen, and when oil prices rise, so do coal prices. Rising coal prices, he said, have created new state revenue.

Last year the Legislature granted a pay raise of $26,000 to the Justices and all circuit judges, $23,000 to family court judges, and $10,000 to magistrates, effective this year.

Other courthouse workers did not get big raises this year, Canterbury said. They expect bigger raises next year, he said, and they will get them.

He said, "Remember trickle down theory? This is more like trickle up."

The proposed budget would add about $3 million for computers and other modern equipment. Canterbury said some magistrates use computers from 1982.

"We can't press a button for instant tabulation of fines," he said. "We can't tell how much the magistrates collect, and we need to know because some of that fine goes to pay off bonds for prisons we built."

He said, "It would be nice to have an accurate number or two. We've got to get there."

The proposed budget would add about $1.8 million for a judicial pension fund that carries a potential liability of about $22 million.

Canterbury said that even with the budget boost, the courts would account for only 2.65 percent of state spending.

In West Virginia, magistrate judges hear criminal cases, circuit judges hear civil cases and family court judges hear family cases. Circuit judges also hear appeals from magistrate courts.

The state has no appellate court between local courts and the Supreme Court of Appeals. All appeals from local courts go directly to the Supreme Court of Appeals.

In 2003, the Supreme Court of Appeals received 2,854 petitions. Canterbury said that makes it the busiest state Supreme Court in the nation.

The Justices hired Canterbury after he ran the Regional Jail Authority for eight years. He said the authority spent $389 million on correctional facilities.

He said the authority had completed the last regional jail when he applied to work for the Supreme Court of Appeals.

He said that when he changed jobs, he traded heartache for headache.

In prisons, he said, "the emotions get pretty high blown."

He said, "When you see inmates and get to know them, it can be pretty heart wrenching. I've met their victims too, and that also breaks your heart."

In his new job, he said, "I'm just a glorified supply sergeant. I just make sure that everyone has the tools they need."

Canterbury started as court administrator last July 1, the first day of the fiscal year. The budget he needed to write would cover a fiscal year 12 months away.

While Canterbury and the Justices pushed the budget along, Canterbury learned how the courts and their 1,200 employees operate.

"I found that people feel courts aren't as accountable as they should be," he said. "I found that judges were personally very accountable but the system was not."

Circuit clerks occupy a delicate position, he said.

County commissioners set the budgets for circuit clerks, but circuit clerks must take directions from the Supreme Court of Appeals.

He said that creates a computer issue for him.

"We buy computers for magistrates and probation officers," he said, "but we can't buy computers for circuit clerks."

Although the Court of Appeals cannot buy computer hardware for circuit clerks, the Court can buy software for circuit clerks, he said.

He has to convince county commissioners to spend on hardware so the Court can supply software, he said. He offers a comparison of hardware as a concrete form and software as concrete.

"You make a concrete form out of cheap lumber," he said. "With computers, the hardware is relatively cheap."

Canterbury also learned that courts in Kanawha County operate differently from the rest. The county has a court administrator, which no other county has.

Kanawha County generates the most cases because it has the most people, he said, and also because it is the state capital. When the state sues a citizen or a citizen sues the state, it happens in Kanawha County.

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