By RICHIE HEATH
CHARLESTON -- While West Virginia's leaders have spent a lot of time talking about reforming our state courts, we seem to keep spinning our wheels in the mud. Case in point is our most recent judicial reform discussion.
In April 2009, Gov. Joe Manchin announced that he was creating an Independent Commission on Judicial Reform to study West Virginia's much-criticized court system and recommend possible fixes. In establishing his Commission, Gov. Manchin noted the lack of fundamental change to our courts since 1974.
Many hailed the Commission as a positive first step for the state. Public hearings followed, and the result was a series of reform recommendations -- the most significant of which included the creation of an intermediate court of appeals and corresponding automatic right of appeal for all litigants. In support of its recommendations, the Commission cited case load statistics which indicate our Supreme Court of Appeals is one of the busiest appellate courts in the nation.
If this process sounds familiar, it's probably because our state did the same thing more than a decade ago. In 1997, the West Virginia Supreme Court similarly appointed its own "Commission on the Future of the West Virginia Judicial System," which noted that there had not been a thorough review of West Virginia's courts since 1974. The Commission ultimately found that "West Virginia's court system must change to meet the demands of our changing society and to better serve the citizens of this great State."
Citing an appellate process "threatened by a continuously increasing caseload" and one of the busiest appellate dockets in the nation, the Supreme Court's own commission recommended in 1998 the creation of an intermediate court of appeals along with one appeal-of-right for all litigants.
Thus, two separate commissions have come to similar findings -- the caseload of the West Virginia Supreme Court warrants the creation of an intermediate appeals court. Which is why Gov. Manchin's recent State of the State address was somewhat baffling.
Instead of pushing for one of the most significant recommendations of his judicial reform commission, a recommendation apparently needed more than a decade ago, the Governor announced that the Supreme Court would be issuing its own rule that would allow for an automatic right of appeal for West Virginia litigants.
While an automatic right of appeal is unquestionably a step in the right direction, one has to wonder how meaningful that right will be if all new appeals are to be handled by an appeals court already deemed to be the busiest in the nation.
Gov. Manchin's Commission has reported that, even with a recent 50 percent reduction in workers' compensation petitions, our Supreme Court has more than double the filings it had 25 years ago. In 2006 alone, our state Court saw nearly 1,500 more filings than the next busiest state without an intermediate appeals court. And since our Supreme Court's Commission initially recommended an intermediate appeals court, three other states with caseloads smaller than West Virginia have created such courts.
With projected budget shortfalls looming, it is understandable that costs would play a factor in the decision to create a new layer of state courts. Start up costs for an intermediate court of appeals are an estimated $8.6 million, with more than $7.8 million in annual costs thereafter. While these figures seem large at first, it's worth noting that they total less than one-half of one percent of this year's proposed budget. Gov. Manchin's own Commission has cautioned us to "avoid the tendency to characterize the needs of our judicial system ... merely as another 'competing' program vying for limited resources."
Consequently, our state leaders need to take into consideration the costs of not creating an appeals court. While public financing of judicial elections and greater transparency for judicial appointments can help improve the reputation of our state courts, it is ultimately a meaningful right of appeal that will lead to an influx of jobs to our state. We shouldn't be asking whether we can afford an intermediate court of appeals. Rather, we need to be asking whether we can afford not to create such a court.
Heath is the executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse.