By BRENT BENJAMIN
CHARLESTON -- As Chief Justice, I've had the pleasure of traveling the Mountain State and speaking with a number of groups on a wide variety of issues.
My topics varied from the technical ("How to Get an Edge in Appellate Representation") to the philosophical ("Why We Need a Unified Bar") to the (hopefully) entertaining ("My Adventures in Egypt"). One of my favorite talks, especially when speaking to young lawyers, focuses on the need to periodically "stop and smell the roses." Too frequently, we fail to reflect on the wonderful things in our lives.
As the Supreme Court of Appeals begins its Fall 2009 term, I thought it appropriate to "stop and smell the roses " -– time to look back at some of the wonderful accomplishments which occurred, but were sometimes overlooked, during the January 2009 term of our Court. There were many.
Effectiveness is a goal to which all good courts aspire. It is a measure not simply of what a court does, but how it does it. It is a goal many might think unattainable in today's highly factional environment -– an environment where perceptions about our courts and other public bodies are driven more by zealous partisan denigration and disparagement than by scholarly review and discussion. Yet, though perhaps overlooked by those more politically predisposed, our Supreme Court of Appeals has now entered a rarified, decidedly non-political realm which many might presume would simply not be possible for an elected appellate body such as ours.
During the January 2009 term, 90 percent of the Supreme Court of Appeals' opinions were unanimous decisions. Consider that for a moment: 90 percent of this appellate court's decisions were 5-0. The issues confronted by our Court were as complex, as divisive, and as difficult as any in the past. Yet this Court achieved what has proven elusive before now. How? The effectiveness of our present Court lies in the ability of five diverse jurists to leave politics at the door and to think independently together.
To accomplish this, the members of this Court are in constant personal communication with each other, as are our staffs. This communication includes weekends and evenings. Cases are thoroughly discussed before and after oral argument. Oral argument is rigorous, but, with the current members of the Court, courteous and professional. Minds remain open throughout the process. Legal points are researched anew and debated extensively. I think it is safe to say that the members of this Court thoroughly enjoy the academic side of the law, are not afraid of engaging in their own legal research, and embrace lively -– but collegial –- debates with each other about cases.
Central to our Court's decision-making is our collective adherence to the principle that justice is defined by the rule of law -– not by the political or social agenda of this group or that, not by some vaguely felt sense of cosmic right or wrong, not by personal feelings or leanings, and certainly not by the attempted public bullying of the Court by any political or media presence. On this principle, this Court stands resolute. The transparency of what we do is reflected in our written opinions -– reasoned and scholarly -– opinions to which we openly invite academic criticism and discussion. And what we do, we do quietly, without fanfare, without a cadre of media specialists or public relations personnel, without focus groups, and without self-promotion.
The January 2009 term also produced a continued expansion of court services to the public, particularly in the areas of domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, community-based corrections, access to justice, civics-based education to school-aged children, and the rapid expansion of drug courts to name a few. In the areas of domestic violence and child abuse and neglect, West Virginia's court system is considered one of the best in the country. The Domestic Violence Registry, which is now in place throughout much of the state, is a model to be followed by other states.
Our Clerk's and Administrative offices are widely viewed as among the best in the country thanks to the dedicated service of Clerk Rory L. Perry II, Deputy Clerk Eydie Nash Gaiser, Court Administrative Director Steve Canterbury and their respective staffs. And, thanks to Mr. Canterbury and his staff, while expanding services to those in need, we were still able to reduce the judicial system's budget for fiscal year 2010 in view of the nation's current economic uncertainties.
And so it is that I reflect on just some of "the roses" from the January 2009 term. These facts and accomplishments will never be fodder for front page news coverage or sensationalized political debates. But they are, in fact, the hallmark of a stable and predictable judiciary -– which many believe is the backbone of a strong state. It is with considerable pride that I share these accomplishments with, and credit their possibility to, my wonderful colleagues, Justices Davis, Workman, Ketchum and McHugh.
West Virginia may face many daunting challenges, but our state is well-served by its judges, the personnel of its judicial system, and the attorneys of this state.
Benjamin is Chief Justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.