CHARLESTON -- A chorus of critics are singing the blues that a bill to create an intermediate appellate court isn't gaining traction in the House of Delegates.
On Wednesday, the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce and West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse issued press releases saying House leadership has brought the bill to a halt. The state Republican Party echoed those thoughts in a release late Tuesday, and acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin even issued a release Wednesday afternoon urging the passage of the legislation.
The president of West Virginia Association for Justice, meanwhile, said House Speaker Rick Thompson is approaching the issue with a "non-political look."
"The West Virginia Chamber of Commerce is expressing concern that the leadership of the House of Delegates is stalling on several very important issues to West Virginians, including the creation of an intermediate appellate court," state Chamber President Steve Roberts said in a release. "House Democratic leaders seem unable to deal with the major issues facing our state.
"Education reform and legal fairness seem basic and are widely supported throughout West Virginia. Add the apparent inability to resolve the Other Post Employment Benefits (OPEB) liability and you have to wonder if West Virginia is ever going to deal with its most basic problems."
The State Senate passed SB307 last week to create a three-judge intermediate appellate court, but the House has failed to bring the bill up for consideration.
State GOP Chairman Mike Stuart didn't mince words.
"Rick Thompson, the gubernatorial hopeful who is the darling of the plaintiff's bar, and the liberal Democrats serving in the House of Delegates have so far been successful in killing any hopes of an intermediate court of appeals by refusing to place the matter on the Legislative agenda," Stuart said.
"Rick Thompson and the liberal Democrats who control 65 of the 100 seats in the House are stopping any hopes of establishing an intermediate appellate court. The Democrats have refused to place the matter on the agenda so it can be debated by the members. Republicans support the new court, but Thompson and his liberal caucus are blocking it."
Stuart said Thompson and liberal Democrats led the charge for an $85 million annual pay raise for government workers that could cost the state nearly $1 billion over the next decade.
"But they refuse to support a new court that would cost a pittance and could change the perception of our business climate to create new jobs," Stuart said. "Thompson and his liberal team of Democrats in the House need to be reminded that they work for the taxpayers and not the plaintiff's bar. The people will send a loud message in the next election."
The executive director of WV CALA said the bill was "dead on arrival" in the House and called it a "casualty of the personal injury lawyers' agenda."
"West Virginia is currently one of only ten states in the nation without an intermediate appeals court, and the creation of such a court has been recommended by two bi-partisan judicial reform commissions over the last decade," Richie Heath of WV CALA said. "Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and former U.S. Senator Carte Goodwin were among the commission members supporting the creation of an intermediate appeals court in West Virginia."
Heath said House leadership appears unwilling to address the reform measure, which has been "opposed in large part by the personal injury bar."
"Thompson, who works as a personal injury lawyer, received more than $100,000 in campaign contributions from personal injury lawyer interests during the 2010 election cycle," Heath said. "It is disappointing to see that efforts to improve West Virginia's legal system have once again lost out to special interest influences.
"Most people can see the importance of an intermediate appeals court for our state, which would finally ensure a meaningful right of appeal for all litigants."
Heath also praised the state Senate for its work on the legislation.
"Senators Jeff Kessler, Palumbo and all others supporting the intermediate appeals court deserve credit for their willingness to put West Virginia's future above special interest politics," he said. "It is a shame that the obstructionist House of Delegates is once again holding our state back from important legal reforms."
In his release, Tomblin noted the state Supreme Court's adoption of revised rules of appellate procedure last year. He said this bill would be another "positive step in the right direction."
"Our Court and our circuit courts are filled with hardworking, dedicated judges," Tomblin said. "That being said, West Virginia is in the minority of states that do not have an automatic right of appeal, and I think that should change. Senate Bill 307 does a very good job of minimizing costs while assuring a guaranteed right of appeal.
"Now, I call upon members of the House of Delegates to pass this bill and allow the citizens of our state a guaranteed right to access the appellate process in the judicial branch."
A Republican gubernatorial candidate also weighed in on the issue.
"Fixing West Virginia's broken judicial system is one of our top concerns," Morgantown businessman Bill Maloney said Wednesday. "For too long, West Virginia has been considered a 'judicial hellhole' by experts. West Virginia residents and businesses deserve a fairer, more just court system. I'm pleased that the Senate moved forward on this bill. Now it's time for the House to act.
"Our outdated court system is unfair and hurts West Virginians. It chases away businesses and jobs. Creating an intermediate appellate court is an important first step to fixing our broken judicial system and ending our lawsuit abuse problem. The legislature must pass the court bill this session."
WVAJ President Michael J. Romano said Wednesday that he biggest problem with the proposal is that the true cost of an intermediate appellate court isn't known.
"The House is taking a non-political look at this intermediate appellate court," he said. "Nobody knows what the true cost of this court will be. Nobody has sat down and calculated the cost to the prosecutors, the public defenders and the Attorney General for having to respond to the number of appeals. And, they haven't given the new appellate rules a chance to get going."
He called the legislation wasteful and redundant.
"Those new rules really provide the Chamber with what they've been requesting, which is a decision on the merits," Romano said. "This court, with three justices, is supposed to hear all the cases the Supreme Court doesn't. That is going to create, at the minimum, a 12- to 18-month delay. And it is giving a taxpayer-funded opportunity to criminals to get off on a technicality.
"The bottom line is that we're discussing this because the state Chamber is out there badmouthing West Virginia. They're calling us a tort hell and saying we're bad for business. That is self-serving, and it shows they have a hidden agenda. They're supposed to be cheerleaders for West Virginia. But they're the main group chasing away businesses and jobs."
Romano noted studies that show West Virginia among the cheapest states to do business.
"That's what the Chamber should be out there screaming from the mountaintops," he said. "If they thought there were some little tweakings to the judicial system, then they should try to get that done. But their cheer shouldn't be, 'Don't come to West Virginia.'"
Romano went on to say the attacks on the House leadership is simply "typical politics."
"It's just strong-arming to get a political advantage," he said. "Republicans are all about fiscal conservatism. The GOP should want to know what this Court is going to cost before we put this burden on the state. The bottom line is that the intermediate appellate court is bad business for West Virginia."
Romano did say he thinks Thompson's idea of a business court is one worth testing. A special Business Court Committee of circuit judges on Tuesday recommended that the state Supreme Court create one of those pending more study.
"The idea behind it is to have judges who specialize in business matters to bring the expertise there," Romano said. "It has merit. It's not going to cost anything extra. It's worth giving a shot."
GOP Chairman Stuart also criticized the business court idea.
"Thompson proposed a business court which is nothing more than a circuit court specializing in business matters," Stuart said. "His proposal is pure smoke and mirrors. It is an appellate right that is essential to changing our lawsuit climate and the liberal Democrats are standing in the way."
Stuart also was critical of Romano in his release for holding a fundraiser for Thompson's gubernatorial campaign.
"I find it curious that just last week Mike Romano, president of the falsely named Association for Justice, which is vehemently opposed to the creation of an intermediate appellate court, held a fundraiser for Rick Thompson for Governor in Harrison County," Stuart said in his release. "I wonder how many hundreds of thousands of campaign dollars the plaintiff's attorneys are providing to Thompson this year? Thompson would be a home run for the trial attorneys."
Romano defended himself, but called Stuart's comments "embarrassing."
"That's what politics has dissolved into," Romano said. "Nothing but slapping each other around.
"Listen, I'm active in Democratic Party. I've offered to help any candidate running for governor. And others will take me up on that in the near future. But I think the Speaker is someone who has shown great intelligence in passing laws that affect our state and not serving to interest groups. I think he's always trying to do what's right for the state of West Virginia."
Romano said those who attended the Thompson fundraiser were mostly engineers, construction owners, oil and gas officials, local legislators and real estate developers. He said no other attorneys were there.
"I want to try to do the right thing," Romano said. "I think we have an obligation to get involved and do the right thing. And, personally, I think Rick Thompson has never promised anything and gone back on his promise. He's always trying to do what's right for the state. He's shown great strategic abilities."