Gov. Joe Manchin wants West Virginia to do more about legal reform. For this we're encouraged.
Manchin signed an executive order this week that creates a commission to examine the state's much-maligned court system. It can hold public hearings, conduct studies on the subject and suggest reforms.
That's a very good thing. But it would be much better if he didn't make a law degree a prerequisite for being on the commission.
Of the seven spots on the commission, six are reserved for lawyers -- including two ex-judges, two practicing lawyers, and two law professors. Theirs are valuable perspectives, to be sure. But limiting the commission to only those with law degrees means it will not have representation from the public -- the entity the courts were created to serve.
Our independent courts get their authority from our state constitution. This has not changed. But how that authority is implemented by those lawyers and judges using our judicial branch is now an open question.
Today some officers and judges of our courts seem more than willing to impose their grander and personal goals on us in their roles of manning the scales of state justice. They often are more activist and more aggressive in their actions. They appear keen on using our courts to change society without having to bother with the persuasive and heated debate of representative democracy.
We believe the justice system today is in need of examination by a court commission precisely because of this attitude. We believe the system has gone off course because it's being steered by certain people who thrive from it and who are unchecked by the radical ambivalence of law degree peers who prefer to see, hear and speak no evil.
Lawyers file the lawsuits and make their living doing it. Once lawyers themselves, judges interpret the law and even write new law when they see fit. And legal academics comment from their ivory towers, far from the dog-eat-dog courtroom trenches where the public watches justice unfold.
The lawyers have a significant stake in how our courts are today, and they have played a significant role in perpetuating the prevailing conditions -- both good and bad. They earn a living by this system, are advocates of it, and are empowered by it.
Why then should we expect these custodians of our court system, anointed by state leaders, to suddenly turn a critical eye toward the system they created and use and seem unwilling to change?
Why haven't we, the public, been asked to participate in the process of change.
Gov. Manchin's reform commission idea is promising and can be productive, but it won't be unless he appoints citizen members who don't bill by the hour, or prefer the enrichment of the justice system as is.
The courts exist to serve its citizens, not the legal profession. The public -- you -- deserves a prominent seat at this table of reform.