CHARLESTON -- A committee has recommended that the state Supreme Court create a business court.
The Business Court Committee forwarded its letter of recommendation to Chief Justice Margaret Workman on Tuesday. Other than accepting the letter, the Court has not acted on the letter. The Justices were in Morgantown on Tuesday hearing cases at the West Virginia University College of Law.
"The committee members worked extremely hard and did volumes of research to arrive at their conclusions," Supreme Court Administrative Director Steve Canterbury said Tuesday. "The Court placed extraordinary confidence in each of the judges on this panel, and I'm sure the Justices will be influenced by the recommendation."
The Court established the committee in June in response to House Bill 4352.
Members of the committee are Wayne Circuit Judge Darrell Pratt (chairman), 22nd Circuit Judge Donald Cookman (Hampshire, Hardy and Pendleton counties), McDowell Circuit Judge Rudolph J. Murensky II, 11th Circuit Judge James J. Rowe (Greenbrier and Pocahontas counties), Monongalia Circuit Judge Susan B. Tucker and 23rd Circuit Judge Christopher Wilkes (Berkeley, Jefferson, and Morgan counties).
In its letter to the Court, the committee mentioned the work it had done in researching the issue.
"The next step is to develop rules and procedures for such a court which, of course, is completely at the discretion of the Supreme Court," Pratt wrote in the letter. "In that regard, our committee members wish to volunteer to help in the development of rules for the establishment of a business court.
"As part of the rule-making process, public comments will be received and, if the Court desires, we shall also hold a public hearing regarding the rules when they have reached the appropriate development for such a hearing to be held."
Pratt said the committee was mindful that the cost of such a court needs to be minimized. He suggested the costs be absorbed within the current operations of the court, much like the way the Mass Litigation Panel has been developed.
"Of course, we are aware that the costs will ultimately be determined by the rules that are eventually developed to establish West Virginia's business court," Pratt wrote. "In closing, let me note that our purpose is clear in recommending to you the establishment of a business court. It is to provide judicial expertise, reliability and efficiency in handling business and inter-corporate disputes to promote business development and retention in West Virginia.
"Thus, we are hopeful that you will accept our recommendation. In any case, the committee members wish to thank you for the opportunity to serve the State and the judiciary in this vital arena, and each member offers his or her assistance in this or any other matter with which the Court believes that such services would be helpful."
House of Delegates Speaker Rick Thompson, who championed the idea of investigating the creation of a business court, said the committee has taken "a major step in improving our state's business climate."
"I am gratified to learn that this esteemed group of judges sees the value and importance of providing a process to help companies in West Virginia more expediently resolve business disputes," Thompson said. "I have long maintained that such a court system within our circuit courts to handle the sometimes complex issues unique to the business community would make our courts more efficient, the results more predictable and timely, and send the message to companies considering doing business in our state that this is a welcoming environment."
Thompson, D-Wayne, first proposed the idea of creating a business court in 2008. Last year, the Legislature adopted House Bill 4352, which allows the state Supreme Court to establish a business court docket within the existing circuit court system, much like the court establishes separate docket systems for the management of criminal cases, civil cases, juvenile cases, abuse and neglect cases and other specialized dockets.
"In other states, such courts have allowed for complex cases to be resolved faster and with less expense than cases tried in courts of general jurisdiction – assisting businesses in getting fair, consistent, and timely dispute resolution," Thompson said. "I have championed this initiative because I see it as a great opportunity to help businesses, create jobs, and help bolster our economy.
"I would like to thank all the judges who participated in this study, including the committee chairman, Circuit Judge Darrell Pratt of Wayne County, for all their hard work."
Thompson said he sees this business court idea as one that doesn't cost the state any money, but it can make the state more friendly toward businesses.
"Businesses can get these legal issues resolved in an expedited fashion, and it would also build some predictability with what the court will do," he said.
Thompson said he's optimistic about the chances.
"I hope the Court will be able to act on this recommendation quickly and get the ball rolling," he said. "But if they act on this quickly, this could be in effect by next year."
The executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse said he'd like to see more information.
"Without additional details, it is hard to view this as a positive step for West Virginia's legal system," Richie Heath said. "The devil is often in the details, and nobody has provided the necessary details about how this plan would be implemented.
"Specialized business courts, in theory, could add value to West Virginia's court system, but the courts could just as easily do more harm than good if they aren't set up in a fair and impartial matter.
"The creation of an intermediate court of appeals, which has already been studied and recommended for more than a decade, would do far more to improve the reputation of West Virginia's legal climate than a theoretical debate on a vaguely described business court system."
The president of the Defense Trial Counsel of West Virginia said her group supports the formation of a business court.
"We believe that corporations seeking to conduct business in West Virginia will benefit from the increased knowledge and educational opportunities afforded to members of the business court and a quicker, more streamlined discovery and trial process," Lee Murray Hall said. "Because the use and success of the court will depend largely on the breadth of the court's jurisdiction, DTCWV supports a broad jurisdictional grant to bring a wide range of business related claims within the court's jurisdictional umbrella.
"We look forward to the opportunity to review the Rules of Procedure promulgated by the Supreme Court so that we may further evaluate the how the proposed business court will fit our clients' needs.
We believe that both the business court, which is a trial court level court, coupled with an intermediate appellate court, will further the goal of providing litigants in West Virginia with a swift, even-handed application of the law and a right of appellate review. While the business court is not, and is not meant to be, a substitute for an intermediate appellate court, we believe that it has the potential to offer corporations seeking to conduct business in West Virginia access to a more streamlined resolution of claims."
The president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce said a business court is a good idea, but not the biggest problem facing the state's legal system.
"West Virginia is viewed as lacking a fair and balanced delivery system that provides justice for all," Steve Roberts said. "This proposal in no way makes up for the guaranteed right of appeal. Only West Virginia refuses this needed improvement.
"Forty-three states have intermediate appellate courts, and all but West Virginia guarantee appeals of major verdicts. This offer is cold comfort and a poor runner-up to what is most needed.
"In West Virginia, you can get Boss Hogg verdicts and you are stuck with them. We talk all the time about the need for jobs, but our state leaders are only consistent in their failure to act."