By SPIKE MAYNARD
CHARLESTON -- As the year 2008 draws to a close, so does my third term as Chief Justice as well as my term on the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia.
It has been a truly wonderful experience for me to have had the great privilege to serve the citizens of West Virginia as a Justice during the last 12 years and as a Chief Justice this year. This is an awesome and very demanding job, and I will truly miss many things about it when I Ieave this month.
Among the things I will miss most are the pleasure of working daily with the almost 1,200 superb folks who serve in the West Virginia court system -– the judges of West Virginia and the staff people who support them, who are the best and brightest in the nation. It has been one of the great treasures of my life to know them and work with them. And I will miss writing this column and the direct contact it gives me with you.
I have used the words "Auld Lang Syne" in the title of every December column I've ever written for the West Virginia Lawyer. They are lovely old Gaelic words written by the great Scottish poet Robert Burns. Burns' words were put to music and the song is sung in two of the best movies ever made, "When Harry Met Sally ..." and at the end of "It's a Wonderful Life."
The words are sung all over the world every New Year's Eve by millions of people, yet few know what they literally mean. So I think we are each allowed to give them the meaning we wish. To me, they mean we must not forget about old friends, old times and sweet memories of the past. So from me to all of you, old friends, Auld Lang Syne.
I want to take this opportunity to talk about only some of the many accomplishments of the West Virginia courts.
West Virginia's Supreme Court remains the busiest appellate court of its type in the nation, according to the National Center for State Courts. In 2005, the most recent year for which comparative information is available, our Court reviewed 2,983 petitions for appeal and other filings, exceeding the next-busiest state, Nevada, by almost 50 percent.
Our Court ranked third overall in the number of appeals filed per 100,000 population, behind the District of Columbia and Louisiana.
Our caseload keeps growing. In 2006 the Court considered 3,566 appeals and in 2007 we received 3,954 appeals, a 33 percent increase in just two years. All those cases receive a full consideration. The Court now considers almost four times the number of appeals as it did 25 years ago.
Our circuit court and family court judges' caseloads also are creeping up.
In 2007, a total of 49,589 cases were filed in West Virginia's circuit courts. Of that, 32,800 filings were in civil cases, 8,884 were criminal cases, and 7,905 were juvenile matters. The total cases filings compares to total filings of 44,170 in 2002; 47,772 in 2003; 46,890 in 2004; 48,535 in 2005; and 47,998 in 2006.
In 2007, there were 34,556 new cases filed in family courts in West Virginia. Of those, 14,779 were domestic violence, 11,796 were divorces, and 7,981 were other domestic relations. There also were 15,539 modification and contempt proceedings in cases reopened during the year, which were not counted as new cases filed. Those proceedings accounted for 44.9 percent of the family court judges' statewide workload.
The total number of new cases filed in family courts has remained relatively steady since the courts were established. There were 35,165 cases in 2002; 35,118 in 2003; 36,224 in 2004; 39,180 in 2005; and 36,479 in 2006.
Our judges work hard, and they deserve to be paid better for their work and their expertise. Our family court judges, especially, deserve better. Their annual salaries of $82,500 are the lowest in the nation. Our circuit judges' salaries of $116,000 rank 42nd in the nation, according to a National Center for State Courts survey.
I hope the Legislature sees fit to rectify this situation in the coming year, particularly for family court judges.
The year 2008 also has been a year of innovation. We have made numerous advances in the use of technology throughout the state and at all levels of the court system. We have made numerous improvements in family court services and are prepared for the addition of 10 new family court judges on Jan. 1.
And we are ready to take on new challenges in 2009 in the daunting area of supervising sex offenders, a new task the Legislature has required of our probation officers.
The Court in October approved rule changes for mass litigation that will improve case management and streamline the process in this important area of complex litigation.
The Mass Litigation Panel, under the chairmanship of Circuit Judge Alan D. Moats of Barbour and Taylor Counties, has hired a coordinator. The Panel in the future will require electronic filing of documents for flood lawsuits, asbestos cases and other mass litigation. West Virginia will become one of the most advanced states in this area; 21 states use electronic filings, but only two use it statewide.
In 2008, the Supreme Court Administrative Office, under the direction of Court Administrator Steve Canterbury, continued to make great progress toward implementing the court system's case management system, named the Unified Judicial Application (UJA).
The system is now completing its second year with the rollout of the second pilot county (Mason) scheduled to take place in December 2008. Planning is underway for the third pilot county, Harrison, and full implementation in magistrate courts statewide is planned for 2009.
The UJA is now in full use as the active case data system in the Greenbrier County Magistrate Clerk's Office, including both docket and financial processing. The financial data portion of the UJA was converted in 2008.
Supreme Court Administrative Office personnel also worked with county commissions around West Virginia to improve the facilities in which courts do their work. We will welcome 10 new family court judges to our ranks on Jan. 1, 2009; and it has been our task this year to make sure that, when they start work, they have offices, courtrooms, and equipment.
Division of Court Services Director Angie Saunders has used her grant-writing abilities to help land millions of dollars in federal funds for West Virginia court programs.
For example, she secured an $815,000 grant that made it possible to purchase technology for a domestic violence registry and to pay for training to use it. The grant also provided funding to hire a full-time data manager and a full-time programmer.
Under this grant, 27 state and federal agencies have come together to work collaboratively on the registry and training in domestic violence related cases.
In fact, since Canterbury became director on July 1, 2005, he and Saunders have worked collaboratively with various judges and division staff in the Administrative Office to obtain a number of federal grants.
Indeed, when Canterbury arrived, the Court had two grants totaling approximately $225,000. Currently, the federal grants committed to the Court total about $6.1 million!
Successful grantsmanship has made possible a dramatic expansion in the use of drug courts throughout the state.
Currently, three adult drug courts -– serving the Northern Panhandle (Hancock, Brooke, Ohio, Marshall, and Wetzel Counties), the West Central region (Wood, Wirt, Doddridge, and Ritchie Counties), and Mercer County – are successfully operating.
Two juvenile drug courts – in Cabell and Wayne Counties -– are also up and running. Eight more are in the process of being established –- in Kanawha, Cabell, Monongalia, Preston, Raleigh, Greenbrier, Pocahontas, and the Southwestern region (including Logan, Lincoln, and Boone Counties).
It is important for everyone to understand that the judges, family court judges, magistrates, prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation officers, and law enforcement officers who are involved in making these problem solving courts work do so with absolutely no additional compensation.
Keeping these courts running is one of the most important missions in the State -– and they are primarily operating due to the countless hours of volunteerism on the part of committed public servants and other interested parties in the communities.
In fact, the foundation for each of these drug courts is Community Corrections. The Community Corrections day report centers are used for drug testing, life skills training, group and individual counseling, and community work assignments.
Close to 1,000 people are now in Community Corrections programs throughout the State. These are offenders who would otherwise be in West Virginia's already overcrowded jails.
Angie Saunders and Family Court Services Director Lisa Tackett have spent the year working with the West Virginia State Police on the very complicated details of creating the domestic violence registry.
The Legislature in 2001 directed the State Police to create the automated, statewide registry of domestic violence protective orders. Work was hindered by a lack of funding and dedicated staff, and problems developing technology. Legislation enabling the Court to house the database was effective June 6, 2008. During the next several months, the registry will be a reality.
Children's issues continued to take center stage for the Court in 2008, following Justice Robin Jean Davis's "Year of the Child" in 2006 and "Year of the Child, Too" in 2007.
The Court-sponsored Court Improvement Program, led by 28th Judicial Circuit Judge Gary L. Johnson, completed several projects, including a comprehensive study of multidisciplinary treatment teams training on the electronic Child Abuse and Neglect database, which tracks more than twenty performance measures in child abuse and neglect cases.
The Court Improvement Program also participated in three annual child abuse and neglect cross-training conferences in July, approved a uniform child and family case plan for child abuse and neglect cases to be implemented in December, completed a study of the Interstate Compact for the Placement of Children, and added information to the CIP Web site.
In 2007, the Division of Family Court Services began training providers for the newly developed "Advanced Child-focused Parent Education" Program. This program was developed to target high conflict parents and assist divorcing or divorced parents in reducing parental conflict and the risk factors that influence the child's post-separation adjustment. In 2008 ten regional programs began holding classes and helping parents throughout the State.
The Court also decided that the issues of protecting West Virginia's children needed its own focused staff. Thus, to coordinate the Court's collaborative efforts to promote the safety, permanency, and well-being of children in the court system, the Court created the new Division of Children's Services this year.
The Supreme Court's Division of Probation Services spent 2008 preparing to carry out the provisions of the Child Protection Act of 2006 (House Bill 101, passed June 14, 2006).
In fact, the first probation officers hired specifically to supervise sex offenders under provisions of the Act will be sworn in on November 7, 2008, in the Supreme Court. Those five probation officers will operate a pilot program to carry out provisions of the new law, which requires extended supervision for sexual offenders, especially those convicted of crimes against children.
After the pilot program runs for approximately nine months, the supervision program will be expanded one region at a time throughout the state over the next two or three years. A total of thirty probation officers eventually will be hired to carry out provisions of the law. A new position already has been created within the Administrative Office of the Supreme Court of Appeals to oversee the Sex Offender Intensive Supervision Program.
These are only a few of the highlights of our typically bust year at the Supreme Court. Space limits me from listing the many, many other important tasks that our court system employees do.
It's easy for those who don't win their cases in court to bash the system and the judges and justices who preside over it. But as I leave the bench at the end of this term, I can honestly say that our American system of justice is the world's envy, and our West Virginia system of justice is clearly one of the busiest and best in the nation.
And that is so because of the hardworking, dedicated, and talented people who strive every day to deliver justice to the people of West Virginia.
Maynard is Chief Justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.