By HOPPY KERCHEVAL
MORGANTOWN -- One of the beauties of the American court system is transparency.
The vast majority of court proceedings are open to the public; court documents are a matter of public record; jurors are free to talk about their deliberations after the verdict is issued.
Oddly, then, decisions by the West Virginia Supreme Court on whether to hear appeals have often been accompanied by an air of mystery.
The court's denial of an appeal comes with only a brief notification--no explanation of why the appeal was rejected. That often leaves clients and their attorneys with a sort of legal roadblock; all they know is that they are not going to get another day in court.
But now that's changing.
Grumbling over the practice spilled out into the open several years ago when the high court refused the appeal of a $400 million verdict against Chesapeake Energy and NiSource in a civil case. Business leaders said the decision and the inability to have the verdict reviewed sent a message of judicial hostility toward business.
Some began advocating for a lower level appellate court. If the Supreme Court wasn't going to review huge cases, the argument went, then maybe the state needed another avenue for appeals.
The state Supreme Court got the message and began revising its rules for appeals. After months of public hearings and revisions, the court this week released the new rules.
The biggest change is that when an appeal is rejected, the court will explain why. "The rules provide a complete, expeditious, and effective method of proving a full review and decision on the merits in all properly prepared appeals," the court said in releasing the new rules. "Decisions will be issued in the form of a full opinion or memorandum decision."
Chief Justice Robin Davis says the five justices will rise to the task. "Can we do it? Absolutely we can do it because we have five members of the court and we will work hard," David said. "There is not a member of this court who is not willing to put in the hours."
The justices are not the only ones under additional pressure. Attorneys who file appeals will be held to a higher standard. Currently, if a lawyer files a sloppy appeal and it's rejected, neither the attorney nor his/her client knows the reason.
Under the new rules, the court may reject a poorly prepared appeal and make clear in its opinion that the attorney did shoddy work.
A cynic could suggest that the high court is adopting the new rules to maintain its considerable power as the final word on appeals. In addition, an intermediate court could provide a political launching pad for judges interested in running for the Supreme Court.
The new rules will not completely silence the calls for an intermediate court.
But what ultimately happens is up to the Supreme Court. If the judges do as they say they will and ensure that West Virginia's court of last resort gives those on appeal a fair shake, then the new rules will have been a wise decision.
Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast by the MetroNews Statewide Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday.