CHARLESTON -- A statewide judicial reform group is criticizing state Supreme Court Justice Menis Ketchum for switching gears on the need for an intermediate appellate court.
During his 2008 campaign for the Supreme Court, Ketchum said West Virginia needed an intermediate appellate court. But during a Feb. 9 budget hearing before the House of Delegate's Finance Committee, Ketchum said he no longer is in favor of adding such a court, which officials say would cost at least $8 million a year.
"Justice Ketchum was quick to break his campaign promise, especially since it now appears that he's putting a price tag on the amount of fairness our state courts can afford," said Richie Heath, executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse. "And, instead of having a meaningful debate on the subject, Justice Ketchum is clearly inflating the cost estimates in an effort to diminish support for an intermediate appeals court."
Heath said Ketchum should look past dollar figures.
"It would be a mistake to characterize the legal rights of West Virginians as simply another budgetary program," Heath said. "We also cannot forget the jobs that will be lost in our state by doing nothing.
"Given that the Governor's Independent Commission on Judicial Reform highlighted the needs of West Virginians to access an intermediate court of appeals, it is disappointing that members of the Supreme Court aren't even open to discussion on the topic."
The topic of an intermediate appellate court is a hot topic right now at the statehouse. Chief Justice Robin Jean Davis' recent comments about how she doesn't see the need for such a court has sparked a war of words. The Court is in the process of updating rules about appeals.
"It will be $15 million by the time the bureaucrats get done," Ketchum said during the Feb. 9 hearing, according to wvared.com. "Am I going to write a 30-page opinion on every case? Ninety percent of the appeals I see are frivolous, so the answer is, hell no. But you'll get a decision on the merits.
"Why do we keep talking about what we're doing now, or what we used to do? Give us a chance to do our rules. We're doing what everybody said they want.
"With the five justices now, we can take every appeal. we can study them and we can do it standing on our heads. You watched the Super Bowl. Hell, I read briefs."
But in 2008, when he was campaigning for the seat on the bench, Ketchum said he was in favor of the intermediate appellate court.
"Yes, we do need an intermediate court of appeals,"Ketchum said during an Oct. 22 forum at Shepherd University, according to a story in The West Virginia Record. "I think we need four (courts of error) — one in the Northern Panhandle, one in the Eastern Panhandle, one in Greenbrier County or that area and one in Charleston."
Last week, Ketchum explained why he has changed his mind.
"On the campaign trail, I said we needed intermediate appellate courts," he told The West Virginia Record. "I said they would cost $850,000 apiece. Now, I've been informed the court would cost $8 to $14 million annually. I was misinformed about the cost.
"In my year on the court, I have discovered that our caseload is diminishing each month.
"The five justices on the current court, all of whom work extremely hard, can review the entire record on every case and make a decision and save the taxpayers $8 to $14 million a year."
Ketchum said the Supreme Court easily can handle the appeals caseload in West Virginia.
"I am now of the opinion that it would be a waste of taxpayer money to spend $8 to $14 million annually on an intermediate appeals court.
"The Supreme Court, under the Constitution, would be required to supervise the intermediate appellate court. The appeals that would be decided by this intermediate appellate court would then come to the Supreme Court. It is not necessary for a double review at a cost of $8 to $14 million annually."