By BRENT BENJAMIN

CHARLESTON -- At the Court, we welcome two new justices, former Justice Margaret Workman and Huntington lawyer Menis Ketchum.

After hard-fought campaigns, Justices Ketchum and Workman are eager to hit the ground running and I look forward to serving with them for many years. With their help, we can continue the progress of the past four years of moving the Court away from politics and partisanship and back to a court squarely focused on the rule of law.

The year 2009 promises to be a busy one for the Supreme Court: a year of refocusing our court system on serving the needs of those who use West Virginia 's system of justice. Working with the State Bar and the voluntary bar associations and groups, we will seek to identify those areas of our judicial system which can be improved for the benefit of our citizens and for the members of the Bar. Just as the role of West Virginia 's judicial system is to protect the rights of its citizens and to resolve disputes which arise involving its citizens, I believe that the court system should also constantly strive to enhance its delivery of judicial services to the people of West Virginia.

With the earnest help of the State Bar, West Virginia Legal Aid and a number of other individuals and groups, 2009 will be the year when West Virginia follows the lead of a majority of other states and creates a formal Access to Justice program to improve access to the civil justice system for people of poor and moderate means. For the growing number of West Virginians for whom practical access to the civil justice system is lacking, this program is long in coming to the Mountain State.

In 1995, P. Nathan Bowles, then-president of the Legal Aid Society of Charleston, said, "The phrase 'Equal Justice for All' should not be an empty one. Our country has a government and a legal system grounded on the legal importance of every citizen. . . . [N]o one is above the law; but we must also ensure that no one is beneath the law." Just three years later, this Court's Commission on the Future of the Judiciary noted in its Final Report an "enormous need" for civil legal representation for West Virginians with limited incomes. In the decade since that report, the State Bar, Legal Aid and a number of other programs and individuals have labored against increasing obstacles to serve West Virginians of poor and moderate means. Declining funding, geographical realities, and a myriad of other problems only contributed to the difficulties of serving the needs of such individuals.

The Supreme Court can no longer be silent on this problem. As Chief Justice, I shall dedicate my office this year to the creation and maintenance of a formal Access to Justice program for our State. West Virginians of all socio-economic levels should be able to bring and defend their civil legal problems within our judicial system in a meaningful manner. I'm not talking about only the poorest of the poor. I'm also talking about the working person striving to make ends meet at the end of the month; the single parent trying to keep his or her head above water; the senior citizen on a fixed income; and the ordinary middle-class family raising children during troubled economic times. In short, I'm talking about our friends and neighbors. Legal problems can strike anyone, regardless of resources. We -– the judiciary and the bar -– can delay this important task no longer.

Despite their best efforts (and their outstanding services too often go unacknowledged), groups serving those in need have seen an erosion in their funding. The outlook for additional funding is not good. The initial role for an Access to Justice Commission will be to develop an objective and accurate understanding of the practical problems West Virginians face in using our legal system; to devise and oversee a strategic plan for developing and integrating the delivery of services to meet such needs; to involve the members of the State Bar and the judiciary in expanding access to justice (including the encouragement of broader pro bono programs, developing pro se programs and so on); to promote and foster coordination with other agencies and organizations in West Virginia; to assist in developing and providing technical and other support to attorneys, courts and other agencies involved in the program; and to recommend changes in existing laws, rules and regulations to enhance meaningful access to justice in West Virginia. I hope I can count on all of you joining with me on this important endeavor.

In the upcoming months, I look forward to explaining more programs and initiatives which the Supreme Court will be considering in 2009. Many of these programs will be in conjunction with the State Bar and voluntary bar organizations. These include the expansion of Drug Courts regionally across the state, the expansion of Juvenile Drug Courts, lawyer specialization, electronic filing, standing committees on the review of procedural and evidentiary rules, business court (a concept raised by Speaker Richard Thompson of the House of Delegates), judicial educational outreach programs, expansion of alternative dispute resolution, and matters relating to judicial selection, including the funding of judicial campaigns.

In concluding this commentary, I would be remiss if I did not mention my appreciation for the dedication of my fellow jurist, Justice Robin Jean Davis, to the forward progress of the Supreme Court away from politics and partisanship and toward programs which serve the needs of the people of West Virginia. Through her leadership of programs to help children and advance the rule of law, Justice Davis has been an inspiration to those seeking positive change in how the court system operates. My colleague, Justice Joseph Albright, has been recuperating after surgery late this Summer. I hope you will join me in wishing Justice Albright a speedy recovery. Finally, I also offer a heartfelt good-bye to departing Chief Justice Elliott "Spike" Maynard who has ably served this State for many decades. Justice Maynard has been a pleasure to work with these last four years and especially during the last year when I served as "back-up" to the Chief.

Benjamin is Chief Justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.

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