BY MICHAEL J. ROMANO
CLARKSBURG -- Steve Roberts and his West Virginia Chamber are at it again -- bad mouthing West Virginia, hoping to scare legislators into eliminating more of our hard-earned rights.
This time the Chamber demands that an intermediate court be added to our appeals system, burdening taxpayers with millions in hidden costs, with no benefit but to delay justice. Fortunately, our House of Delegates asked questions and, when answers regarding necessity and costs were not forthcoming, prudently stopped it.
Now Mr. Roberts claims that the House is denying litigants an "automatic" right of appeal. He must not understand the law or doesn't care, as this right has existed for 100 years. If a party believed they were wronged by a trial court, they could always file an appeal with the Supreme Court consisting of a 50-page petition -- ample opportunity to note every error, backed with the entire trial court record. The Supreme Court reviewed everything. If errors were found, appeal was granted. If no error, the appeal was denied.
Additionally, the court has now implemented rules, effective last December, mandating the issuance of a written opinion explaining acceptance or denial of every appeal -- just like our federal courts. However, that low-cost fix is not good enough for the Chamber, which refuses to give these new rules a chance and is instead sticking to its self-created false perception that, without this expensive new court, we are out-of-sync with the rest of the county.
But, we're not. Of the 10 states without an intermediate court, nine have populations less than two million, like us. One reason small states don't have intermediate courts: they're too expensive.
The intermediate court will cost more than $5.3 million annually in direct costs -- salaries, staff, etc. As wasteful as that is, it does not include millions that will be spent by state agencies, county prosecutors and public defenders responding to twice as many appeals as now -- one to an intermediate court and a second to the Supreme Court. Even then, convicted criminals will take a taxpayer-funded "free shot," hoping to get off on a technicality and multiplying the number of appeals. Our House of Delegates should be commended for not bowing to political scare tactics and demanding how much this new court would cost.
Also consider these facts:
* Appeals to our Supreme Court have declined to their lowest level lowest since 1990. (Daily Mail, Feb. 2, 2010).
* Workers' compensation cases have declined from an average of 225 per month in 2002 to a low of 16 for one month and a monthly average of 80 in 2009. (Daily Mail, Feb. 2, 2010).
* Civil appeals have declined to just 16 percent of all appeals and from 45 percent in the last decade. (2009 WVSCA Statistical Report).
An intermediate court, with three judges proposed, will create an immediate bottleneck. The five Supreme Court justices take a year or more to rule on what will be far fewer appeals.
The Chamber claims to be the cheerleader for jobs and businesses, yet screams coast-to-coast that our state is a bad place to do business and a "tort hell." Who would bring business here hearing such false propaganda?
The reality is that we have the 39th lowest number of lawsuits per citizen (www.ncsconline.org) and have been named in the top 15 cheapest states to do business (www.milkeninstitute.org) for a decade. That is what the Chamber should be preaching from our tallest mountain -- not trying to saddle our state with millions of dollars in needless costs for a needless intermediate court.
Maybe it's time for a new cheerleader.
Romano, a Clarksburg attorney, is the president of the West Virginia Association for Justice.