CHARLESTON -- While the matter still is in the state Supreme Court's hands, the issue of gubernatorial succession could be a hot topic for this legislative session.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Corey Palumbo says he expects the Justices to make a ruling on the case "very quickly." He figures it will be in the next few weeks in case the Legislature has to deal with the consequences from their opinion.
"The (state) Constitution is very clear that a special election is required," Palumbo, D-Kanawha, said Wednesday. "What's not clear is when that election should be. The Supreme Court has heard the arguments.
"I have no idea how they're going to rule on that. They might say an election is required and Legislature should decide. If they say an election is required, that likely would be sometime this year."
One issue that Palumbo said likely won't be taken up this session is an intermediate appellate court.
Palumbo and Sen. Jeff Kessler, who is now acting Senate President, drafted that legislation last year. It advanced from the Judiciary Committee, but didn't make it out of the Senate.
After the state Supreme Court revised its Rules for Appellate Procedure last year, Palumbo thinks everyone is ready to give that issue a rest for now.
"My guess is that probably won't get much traction with the Supreme Court adopting the new rules," he said. "I appreciate the Supreme Court's effort to revise the rules and to make the appeals process a little more transparent. I think people will want to give them time to see how that plays out.
"My guess is that we might take a closer look at that in 2012 after they've had a year to be in effect if there are problems."
As for other issues his committee will address this session, Palumbo said it could be just about anything.
"It's always different," said Palumbo, who is starting his first session as the committee chair. "In interims (interim meetings), there was lots of debate and discussion over extracting gas in the Marcellus Shale.
"I think that presents a great opportunity for West Virginia economically to be a real leader in the national natural gas production. And we need to make sure we protect our environment, but we also need to make sure we support what could be the next great industry in West Virginia. We don't want to hamper what's going to be a great thing for West Virginia."
Palumbo noted that New York has essentially put a halt to Marcellus Shale extraction.
"We want to be cognizant of not doing anything that would halt that industry and stop us from being a big player," he said. "But we need to be cognizant of not doing harm to our environment.
Another issue that the Judiciary Committee will have a part in is the state's Other Post-Employment Benefits debt. The state estimates it will owe workers about $8 billion. OPEB includes health care subsidies.
"That liability gets worse by $40 to $50 million a year," Palumbo said. "That is important for us to get that on the right track. It's really the last piece of unmanaged debt for the state."
As the new Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Palumbo holds the same position his father Mario Palumbo had from 1973 to 1980. Mario Palumbo later served as state Attorney General from 1990 to 1992.
"I'm really appreciative and honored that I've been given this opportunity," Corey Palumbo said. "My dad really enjoyed this position years ago. I just feel fortunate to have this opportunity."
The president of a statewide plaintiff's attorneys association said his group wants to see legislators continue to help the citizens of West Virginia.
"That said, we certainly do not believe we need to cater to out-of-state big insurance companies because they continue to threaten us with propaganda about how bad this state is for business," said Mike Romano, president of the West Virginia Association for Justice. "We've got to focus on what our real problems are and not these trumped up problems that someone is pushing for their own agenda."
One issue that Romano, a Clarksburg attorney, said his group will push for is a chance in arbitration rules.
"Right now, big companies are forcing folks into tremendously expensive arbitration ... where arbitrators are getting all their business from these big businesses," he said. "We need to do something to help preserve regular, working people's right to justice in the courthouse.
"We're hoping there is going to be a bill on this issue. We've spoken to some people about sponsoring it. Defense and plaintiff attorneys see this as an issue."
Like Palumbo, Romano said he thinks everyone needs to wait to see how the Supreme Court's revised Rules for Appellate Procedure work before making more changes.
"Everybody has always had a full right of appeal," Romano said. "With the new court rules, the court now will essentially issue an opinion in every case about its merits. We need to give these rules a chance before we spend $10 to $15 million a year on a new level of the court."
West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, however, thinks more needs to be done on that front.
"Despite recent reform efforts, West Virginia's civil justice system continues to languish," WV CALA Executive Director Richie Heath said. "Legislators must focus, first and foremost, on our state's ongoing need for an intermediate appeals court -- a reform measure that has been recommended in West Virginia for more than a decade.
"Last year, the state Senate took a modest first step towards creating a meaningful right of appeal for all West Virginians. It's time for state lawmakers to finish the job -- West Virginians deserve the fundamental right to appeal potential legal errors."
Heath said such a move would help the state's business climate.
"West Virginia has long struggled with a weak job market and lukewarm economy," he said. "Employers and investors will continue to look elsewhere when deciding about where to locate new jobs and economic investment until our state leaders take meaningful measures to attract new growth and well-paying jobs.
"For West Virginia to become economically competitive, our legislators must finally pass legislation providing the meaningful legal protections that already exist in most states."
Heath also said lawmakers need to consider the idea of nonpartisan judicial elections.
"With two Supreme Court elections coming in 2012, state lawmakers should give meaningful consideration to pilot legislation that would help take some of the politics out of our judicial elections," he said. "The Independent Commission on Judicial Reform recently heard substantial testimony on the merits of non-partisan elections, which emphasize selecting the best judge rather than the best politician.
"West Virginia would be well served by examining firsthand the merits of non-partisan elections during the 2012 election cycle."
Heath also said lawmakers need to work to make the attorney general's office more transparent.
"State lawmakers could also send a clear message that West Virginia is changing its ways by finally bringing much-needed transparency to the Attorney General's office," he said. "For far too long, Attorney General Darrell McGraw has operated with little or no oversight whatsoever. His questionable lawsuit filings -- which often benefit McGraw's campaign contributors -- currently jeopardize millions in state Medicaid funding.
"Requiring the Attorney General to post outside counsel contracts online and disclose the number of hours worked by appointed outside counsel is a good government practice that would make the office more accountable to the people."