CHARLESTON -- A state legal reform group has delivered the first bath of online signatures seeking to fix the state's "broken and job-killing lawsuit system" to lawmakers.
Steve Cohen, executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, said his group started gathering names when Chesapeake Energy announced it was gutting its West Virginia work force, citing the state legal system a major reason for the exodus.
"This loss of jobs coinciding with the legislative session must be a wake-up call to leaders at the capitol that reform of the legal system here is critical to stemming the exodus of West Virginia workers," Cohen said. "How many more will be forced to leave here because lawsuits drive them away?"
Oklahoma-based Chesapeake Energy had big expansion plans in West Virginia at the start of Gov. Joe Manchin's administration. But damages attached to a Roane County court's ruling sent the employer -– one of Fortune magazine's "100 Best" in 2009 -- into retreat. The National Law Journal ranked the 2007 verdict among the largest in the United States that year.
Manchin, in his Feb. 11 State of the State address, proposed modernizing West Virginia courts based on recommendations of a yet-to-be appointed panel. He specifically identified nonpartisan judicial elections and reform of the appeals process as priorities for reform.
Cohen said WV CALA has reminded legislators of national surveys ranking West Virginia last for jobs, largely because of the legal climate. Last month U.S. News and World Report placed the state 50th for growing jobs, largely because legal liability costs are so expensive here
WV CALA has also pushed for a Sunshine Law to hold Attorney General Darrell McGraw accountable for his hiring campaign contributors to non-bid contracts from which they collect millions of dollars in legal fees at public expense. WV CALA has drawn a comparison of the practice to the pay-to-play scandals that drove Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich from office and torpedoed the nomination of New Mexio Gov. Bill Richardson to a seat at the Obama cabinet.
Cohen said signatures still can be added to the petition at www.wvcala.org.