CHARLESTON – Gov. Jim Justice is calling for the creation of an intermediate court of appeals in his annual State of the State address.
During his Jan. 9 speech to open the legislative session, Justice mentioned the idea toward the end of his hour-long address.
“It's time to create an intermediate court of appeals in West Virginia,” Justice said. “It's another step forward to instill – to restoring honor and integrity back to the court system.”
The bill (Senate Bill 2) was introduced earlier in the day. Titled “West Virginia Appellate Reorganization Act of 2019,” it was sponsored by Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump along with Republicans Greg Boso, Tom Takubo, Ryan Weld and Sue Cline. It has been referred to the Judiciary Committee.
Following the speech, the president for a statewide group for trial attorneys was critical of the plan.
“It's hypocritical for Governor Justice to claim that he wants to streamline state government and eliminate waste and then propose a whole new layer in the judicial branch our state doesn't need and will cost taxpayers millions," said Stephen New, president of the West Virginia Association for Justice. "Small states like West Virginia don't have intermediate courts because our caseloads do not justify the expense.
“States with intermediate courts had to create them because their supreme courts had unmanageable workloads. We don't have that problem. Appeals have declined more than 67 percent over the last 20 years.
“Why would we expand the government by creating a whole new court with more judges, more staff and millions in expenses, when the case load is just one-third of what it once was?"
The new executive director of a legal reform group, however, praises the proposal.
“For years, West Virginia has been the only state in the nation to not have an automatic right of appeal,” said West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse Executive Director Jordan Burgess. “West Virginia is the largest state to not have an intermediate appellate court, and the lack of such court has been a contributing factor to West Virginia being on the American Tort Reform Association’s Judicial Hellhole List.”
New disagreed, saying appeal by right is guaranteed.
“Since 2011, the West Virginia Supreme Court has not refused a single appeal,” he said. “At the same time, it has increased the number of decisions on the merits from just 670 from 2006-2010 to 5,003 from 2011-2015, an increase of more than 700 percent.”
New said corporate and insurance lobbyists want the new court created “just for the civil case appeals.”
“Those cases account for just 13 percent of the cases filed,” New said. “In 2017, there were only 174 filed. You don't create a whole new layer of government and spend millions to address 13 percent of the case load.
“The truth is the proposed intermediate court is nothing more than the leadership's reward to the corporate and insurance lobbyists for the millions funneled into this state in campaign and dark money contributions. These special interests have lied to our lawmakers.”
New said there is no evidence showing that adding the new court would improve the state’s economy or business climate.
“The only new jobs that will be created will be the six new judges and their staff added to the state payroll,” New said. “We have limited resources. We shouldn't be wasting them to help out-of-state, corporate special interests to line their pockets at the expense of West Virginia taxpayers.”
Burgess noted that state Senate President Mitch Carmichael has been a vocal supporter of the plan as well.
“WV CALA will be supporting another aggressive legislative agenda this year, including the creation of an intermediate appellate court, seatbelt admissibility and medical monitoring reform.”