CHARLESTON – Keeping to a promise he made during his State of the State address, Gov. Joe Manchin has signed an executive order that creates a commission to study possible changes to the state's court system.
The entire court system is to be reviewed under the order, but Manchin specifies certain aspects that have long been discussed as much-needed changes.
The nine-member commission, created on April 3, has to have a detailed report and suggested constitutional amendments and legislation to the governor by Nov. 15.
In announcing the commission in his speech, 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, we should objectively examine the structural aspects of our court system."
West Virginia's court system has frequently been targeted by legal reform groups as a "judicial hellhole" and an appeal targeting the political relationship between Chief Justice Brent Benjamin and Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship is currently pending in the U.S. Supreme Court.
That case involves Benjamin's refusal to step aside in a Massey case even though Blankenship spent $3 million to help defeat Justice Warren McGraw, Benjamin's opponent in the 2004 general election.
Manchin's order notes that, besides the creation of the family court system in 2000, the state's courts have remained largely unchanged since 1974 -– particularly the method of electing judges and the appellate system.
Manchin's order says a "comprehensive review of our state's court system may bolster public trust and confidence in the judiciary."
Possible changes specified in Manchin's order include the creation of an intermediate appellate court system, which would thoroughly review all appeals. The current system involves the Supreme Court convening to review petitions –- and sometimes responses –- and deciding which appeals can be argued.
Delegate Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha, introduced a bill during the current session that would have created intermediate appellate courts in each of the state's three congressional districts. The bill was unsuccessful.
Manchin's order also calls for an exploration of a merit-based system of appointing judges, instead of partisan elections. Many say this would take the politics out of the courts and make them more independent.
The order also calls for a review of campaign finance practices in court races and the possible creation of a court of chancery -– which would handle business disputes.
The only two named members of the commission so far are West Virginia University College of Law Dean Joyce E. McConnell and West Virginia State Bar President Dwane L. Tinsley. Each will serve as an ex officio member.
Manchin will appoint two lawyers, two legal academics, two former jurists and one person to serve as the commission's chair. Manchin can also appoint one person with special expertise to serve as an honorary chair.
The commission has the authority to hold public hearings and to conduct studies and surveys to gauge the public's will as it reviews the courts and contemplates constitutional amendments or legislation.
The commissioners will not be paid. Expenses will come from the governor's discretionary fund.