Standing in front of House Speaker Rick Thompson (D-Wayne), Gov. Joe Manchin delivers his State of the State address Feb. 11. (Photo courtesy of the governor's office)
CHARLESTON – In his State of the State address, Gov. Joe Manchin said he will sign an executive order to create a commission to study ways to modernize the state's court system.
Near the end of his fifth annual address, Manchin also said the first bill he planned to introduce to legislators would close a controversial pension loophole that allows public pensions –- judicial or otherwise -– to be, as he put it, "double-dipped."
Kanawha Circuit Judge Charlie King and Cabell Circuit Judge Alfred Ferguson both drew criticism last year when they announced their retirement days before they both were unopposed in the Nov. 4 election. Both won their seats back, and now draw a salary and the pension.
"It will ensure that no retiring public official can be re-elected or reappointed to the same position within a year of his or her retirement," Manchin said of the proposal. "This does not preclude someone from running for the same public office again, but it does require ample notification of retirement to give someone else a fair chance to run."
But Manchin spoke more about his plan to create a commission to "immediately" begin studying the modernization of the state court system.
"There is one other significant area that involves judges which must also be addressed if we are to truly show that we're willing to tackle West Virginia's perceived challenges: Legal reform," Manchin said. "We must not let partisan politics prevent us from openly and honestly evaluating our judicial system, which, justified or unjustified, has been under attack."
Instead, Manchin said, the "structural aspects" of the court system need to be examined objectively.
"Our Supreme Court of Appeals is the busiest appellate court of its kind in the entire country, yet West Virginia is one of only 10 states that lack an intermediate appellate court of some kind," Manchin said. "We are one of only seven states that use partisan elections to select every member of its judiciary.
"And, year after year, the growing responsibilities of the judicial branch have led to a corresponding increase in the court's budget. That is why I am going to sign an executive order that creates a commission to immediately begin studying how we can modernize our state court system."
Manchin went on to say the panel would be asked to look at "all options," including creating an intermediate court, improving the judicial budget process, achieving more transparency in our judicial election campaigns, as well as the best method for selecting judges.
"We will work with a broad group of people, including judges, legislators and the private sector, to determine our next step in modernizing our judicial system," Manchin said.
The plan drew praise from both sides of the state's legal reform movement.
"The West Virginia Association for Justice looks forward to working with Gov. Joe Manchin and his study commission on the courts to protect the integrity of our state's judicial system and ensure that everyone is equal when they stand before our state's judges," WVAJ President Allan Karlin said following the speech. "The biggest problem is the role of money in our judicial elections, particularly money from out of state special interests who attempt to influence our elections. At the same time, there is no right more fundamental to a democracy than the right for West Virginia citizens to elect their public officials- including their judges and justices.
"When this commission looks at judicial election reforms, then it should first look at public financing for the candidates and full disclosure of the monies funding third party advertising campaigns. Those reforms will address the real problem -- the money in the elections -- while preserving the right for West Virginians to elect their judges."
Karlin said his group, formerly known as the West Virginia Trial Lawyers Association, believes that out-of-state groups behind big campaign expenditures attacking our courts are wrong.
"One thing is certain -- there is no problem with our West Virginia judges and justices," he said. "Those of us who have practiced in other states or in the federal courts can say without reservation that West Virginia's justices and judges are the equal of any judge or justice in the country."
Karlin also noted that many of the issues up for review by Manchin's commission already are being studied by a group comprised of representatives from the state's voluntary bar associations and the West Virginia University College of Law. Karlin said that he hoped that Manchin will include those individuals on his commission.
Karlin also urged the governor to join the WVAJ, the state Chamber of Commerce and other bar associations in their effort to encourage the development of a new data collection plan so that the courts and state government will have accurate and comprehensive data about our court system.
"Too many of the discussions about our courts lack basic statistical information about how many cases are being filed each year, what types of cases are being filed and how those cases are being resolved. For too long, the state has relied on either incomplete information or hearsay," Karlin said. "We need broad-based, accurate data so lawmakers and others can make sound decisions about our court system."
The executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse also praised Manchin's commission plan and its potential results.
"The governor's proposals to fix West Virginia's broken lawsuit system can mean more jobs for our state," Steve Cohen said. "West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse applauds his closing the loophole for judicial pensions, addressing reform of the appeals process and recognizing the need to take politics out of our courts with nonpartisan election of judges.
"Appointees to his study commission must bring a fair and balanced perspective to their recommendations."