By DARREN MCKINNEY
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Every time another survey or report lists West Virginia as a bad place to do business, personal injury lawyers and some of the judges they pay good money to re-elect are quick to object.
For them, of course, the business of lawsuits has never been better, even as Mountain State taxpayers are forced to fund local courts that too frequently work against their long-term economic interests.
Now comes the latest listing of the 10 "fastest dying" cities in America, according to Forbes.com. Along with the Rust Belt likes of Buffalo, Detroit and Flint, Mich., Charleston now ranks right there with the nation's worst down-on-their-luck towns.
Why? Because large companies and small businesses that might otherwise locate in Charleston and the rest of the state ―- creating jobs, growing the economy, increasing the tax base and making various charitable contributions -― have been scared off by the threat of lawsuits.
Fairly or not, West Virginia has developed a reputation as a "judicial hellhole" wherein productive, community-building enterprises are eventually targeted by parasitic plaintiffs lawyers or the state attorney general's office with litigation designed to dig supposedly free money out of deep pockets.
Well, nobody's pockets are that deep. Astoundingly enough, three of the seven largest plaintiffs' awards in the entire nation last year came in West Virginia circuit courts, and the state's highest court denied the defendants in two of those complex, multimillion-dollar cases the right to an appeal.
Not surprisingly, one of those defendants immediately announced that it was canceling plans to build a new $30 million corporate headquarters in Charleston.
So young college graduates in and around the capital can be excused if they're now feverishly sending resumes to out-of-state employers. Who could blame them?
Yet those who actually deserve blame for West Virginia's "closed for business" reputation continue to evade responsibility. Though his opponent for this fall's election has pledged to adopt the voluntary "transparency code" developed by the American Tort Reform Association as a tool to help state attorneys general run good-government offices that are responsive to taxpayers, Attorney General Darrell McGraw reportedly continues to run his office as a modern day fiefdom, particularly when it comes to hiring private sector lawyers who coincidentally happen to support his political career with campaign contributions.
While there may be occasions when a state attorney general might justifiably need to hire private-sector legal counsel to pursue technically complicated or scientifically complex litigation against an alleged wrongdoer, such contracts should generally be subject to competitive bidding, legislative oversight and public scrutiny via Internet postings.
Outside counsel should be required to keep and provide detailed records of the work they perform, and all damages in excess of $250,000 that the state may be awarded in litigation should be deposited in the state treasury for appropriation by lawmakers. State attorneys general should not be allowed to divert such monies to slush funds they arbitrarily control.
Why Mr. McGraw refuses to commit to such basic transparency and constitutional fundamentals is difficult to understand. Why West Virginia's media and voters don't press him much harder about these matters is equally difficult to understand. But it's easy to understand why businesses avoid the state like the plague, and why the state's economy and employment have grown at rates much slower than those of the nation as a whole during the past several years.
Incredibly, some of West Virginia's well-connected elites even refuse to acknowledge that a serious problem exists. They've recently engaged a pair of college professors to cherry-pick litigation data and publish articles in support of their delusional denials. (Note to professors: It's not the quantity of lawsuits that count; it's the quality or lack thereof.) And until these addicts ―- yes, too many West Virginians have been addicted to the lawsuit business for too long ―- acknowledge the problem, the state's economy will suffer.
Accordingly, regular folks who are looking for work or who'd like to see their children and grandchildren find solid careers in the beautiful Mountain State may want to step up the pressure on those elites-in-denial. Because unless they're happy having their state ranked at or near the bottom of various business surveys while their capital becomes known as one of the "fastest dying" cities in America, regular folks need to let the elites know that the "lawsuit business as usual" is no longer acceptable.
McKinney is communications director for the American Tort Reform Association. ATRA's annual Judicial Hellholes report regularly cites West Virginia courts among the nation's least fair and predictable.