By MICHAEL J. ROMANO
CLARKSBURG -- Ever notice that the more folks have, the harder it is for them to recognize how good they have it. Like rich folks who seem to have everything, they whine and stomp their feet until their own delusional view of the world comes crashing down on them.
Sure, we've heard about Sheen and Lohan, but now we can add the West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse (CALA) and their chief, Richie Heath, to the pile.
That's right. That's right. Health and CALA (just like Mr. Roberts and his West Virginia Chamber of Commerce) are whining and stomping their feet because, despite their political strong arming, they were not granted their wish of another layer of courts that would do nothing to improve anything in our State but take tens of millions of dollars from our treasury.
That whole new court layer would do nothing more than delay justice for West Virginia small businesses and consumers, enabling insurers to financially starve them into submission and forcing them to take pennies on the dollar to conclude otherwise just claims. So, they continue to rant that we are a "tort hell" and a "bad place to do business."
And just like those who are too rich, these groups and their leaders have everything they could want, but just don't know it.
West Virginia already ranks 39th among all states for the lowest number of lawsuits filed per capita (www.ncsconline.org). This time, it's good to be ranked near the bottom with 38 other states are ahead of us. A "tort hell?" And among our neighbors, Maryland ranked first (with nearly eight times more lawsuits than us), Virginia second, and Ohio seventh.
A "bad place to do business?" West Virginia has been ranked by the independent Milken Institute (www.milken.org) in the top 15 cheapest states to do business for nearly a decade. This time, it's good to be at the top. Our West Virginia Development Office reported that in 2008 that our economy grew 3.5 times faster than the rest of the nation, and that our state's exports grew 41 percent— faster than the national average.
Like the rich who have everything, that's still not enough for Mr. Heath and CALA who continue to bad mouth our State. They simply seem are out of touch with reality.
Just like when we watch those rich celebrities spiral ever downward, we ask ourselves: What's going on with folks like Mr. Roberts and Mr. Heath? Why do they rant and stomp their feet screaming about nothing more than self-serving perceptions without support of a single provable fact?
It's the same decades old strategy to increase profits for million-dollar, out-of-state special interests like insurance companies -- all at the expense of West Virginia's economic growth, consumers, workers and small businesses -- and they think we're dumb enough to appease them yet again in the hope they'll quit bad mouthing West Virginia. They create false perceptions that hurt West Virginia, then demand that government fix those false perceptions by giving up hard won rights that protect us all -- Just like when they promised $50 million in insurance premium reductions if we eliminated the only law that protected us against bad insurance companies. Yep, our protections are gone. I'm still waiting on my check, and they're still bad mouthing our State.
This time, their so-called "solution" is an intermediate appellate court, and they almost got it. Thankfully, when simple questions were asked by our House of Delegates, like how much would this new court cost, why do we need it, what will it do for people and businesses who seek justice, it was stopped when those answers were not forthcoming.
The truth is that his court would cost us uncalculated millions creating an unnecessary burden on taxpayers in hidden costs simply to delay justice. The new court demanded by CALA and the Chamber would cost taxpayers more than $5.3 million per year in direct costs—salaries, staff, and the like.
As wasteful as that is, those costs do not include millions in additional taxpayer dollars that will be spent by state agencies, county prosecutors and public defenders to respond immediately to twice as many appeals as now—first to the intermediate court and then to the Supreme Court. We'll also have a whole, unpredictable bunch of new appeals from criminals and civil litigants looking for a "free shot" when given two "automatic" chances to get off on a technicality. That amounts to a taxpayer funded "get out of jail free card" for convicted criminals whose legal fees must be paid by the State.
Mr. Heath should be cheering the leadership of the House of Delegates and the nine Senators who voted against the court for not bowing to their political scare tactics and showing some real fiscal responsibility.
Nope -- not the folks who have too much given to them too easily. Instead, Mr. Heath claims that our State had denied litigants an "automatic" right of appeal, but he must not understand the law or doesn't care. For more than a century, a party feeling wronged by a trial court for any reason could "automatically" bring an appeal to the Supreme Court by filing a 50-page petition -- ample opportunity to highlight every perceived error -- backed by the entire trial court record.
The Supreme Court reviewed all of it. If real errors were found, the appeal was granted. If no error, the appeal was denied. But just last December, the Supreme Court did even more to stop the badmouthing of our State by the likes of CALA.
The Supreme Court made this right appeal even more transparent by implementing new rules mandating that a written opinion would be issued in every appeal explaining why every appeal was granted or denied on the merits -- just like our federal appeals courts do.
That's a smart, low cost fix, but, of course, not good enough for the out-of-state, special interests that fund CALA and Mr. Heath's salary. (We have no names, because CALA won't disclose its financial backers.)
Instead of giving the new rules a chance, these minions of out-of-state special interests continue their attack our State now calling us out-of-sync with the rest of the county, because they didn't get this unprecedented expansion of state government.
But we are not out-of-sync. Of the 10 other states without an intermediate court, nine have populations of less than two million like us. One reason small states don't have intermediate courts: they're too expensive and unnecessary.
But, Mr. Heath also doesn't know these facts or knows that they simply don't help his argument:
* Appeals to our Supreme Court have declined to less than 2,000 appeals in 2009-the lowest since 1990. (Charleston Daily Mail - Feb. 2, 2010)
* Workers' compensation cases (2/3 of all Supreme Court appeals) have declined from an average of 225 per month in 2002 to an average of 80 per month and a low of 16 for one month in 2009. (Charleston Daily Mail - Feb. 2, 2010)
* Civil appeals now comprise just 16 percent of all appeals and have declined 45 percent in the last decade. (2009 W.Va. Supreme Court Statistical Report)
An intermediate court, with the three judges proposed, would create an catastrophic bottleneck. Our five Supreme Court justices take a year or more to rule on what would be far smaller number of appeals. An intermediate court would be behind years the day it opens.
That's reality -- but, as we know, folks who get everything too easily are sometimes out of touch with reality. In the case of Richie Heath and CALA, reality simply doesn't matter. Their reality is not about promoting West Virginia or protecting its consumers, workers and small businesses.
If it was, they'd be screaming about what a great place we are to do business and how few law suits we have. Instead, they'd rather saddle our State and her taxpayers with millions of dollars in costs for an unnecessary court that only benefits CALA's financial backers -- big out-of-state insurance companies and special interests. The question is: Will our elected officials continue to run scared or tell them "enough"?
They're dead wrong -- and that's reality.
Romano is president of the West Virginia Association for Justice.