CHARLESTON – Legal advocacy groups hailed Gov. Joe Manchin's official creation of a nine-member commission to study the state's court system.
But while one of the groups said the commission is long overdue, the other is calling for an objective look at the system, free from special interest bias.
"This critical examination of West Virginia's judiciary is long overdue," said Richie Heath, executive director of the non-profit West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse. "For years now, our court system has been the object of much local and national criticism, which drives well paying jobs to other states."
Meanwhile, Timothy Bailey, president of the West Virginia Association for Justice –- a plaintiffs' lawyer group -– said it's important to disregard the "judicial hellhole" status groups have heaped on the state.
"It is our hope that this commission will take the time to study our courts objectively and address any identified issues in a way that is fair for every West Virginian," Bailey said. "It is critical that we do not fall victim to preconceived notions about what some people say is wrong with our courts when the evidence does not support those conclusions."
Heath said the state's court system as it is now "attracts lawsuits and repels economic growth." He noted that West Virginia is one of only a handful of states that elects its judges through partisan elections.
Heath also called on the governor's commission to consider the state Supreme Court's recusal process for justices, which leaves it up to the individual justice to decide.
A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision found that Chief Justice Brent Benjamin was wrong to not step down from voting on a Massey Energy appeal when the coal company's chief, Don Blankenship, spent $3 million to help get Benjamin elected in 2004.
"The U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision ... leaves many questions unanswered about the future of our state judiciary," Heath said. "If we are to continue electing our judges, (the commission) must balance the need for a clearer recusal standard with the First Amendment rights of all West Virginians to participate in judicial elections."
Bailey, meanwhile, said the commission should focus on limits to campaign contributions.
"There is no right more fundamental to a democracy that the right for West Virginia citizens to elect their public officials-including their judges and justices," Bailey said. "We believe that the biggest problem is not the elections themselves, but the enormous amount of money being spent in them. The commission should look at public financing for the candidates and full disclosure of the monies funding third party campaigns."
Heath called on the commission to focus on what he called the need to create an intermediate appellate court system, which would give parties a full airing of appeals.
Health further urged the commission to recommend stronger venue standards to cut back on the perceived prevalence of individual plaintiffs bringing suit in West Virginia that involve flimsy connections to the state in hopes of finding a sympathetic jury.
Bailey said his group would like to see the development of a data collection system that would give a more accurate picture of the state's courts.
"Too many of the discussions on our courts are based on incomplete information or hearsay," Bailey said. "Until we have comprehensive, accurate data we cannot make sound decisions on our court system."
The commission's report to the governor is due Nov. 15. Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has agreed to head up the commission as honorary chairwoman.
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