CHARLESTON – The state Senate has passed a bill that would create an Intermediate Court of Appeals.
The Senate voted 18-14-2 on Feb. 10 for Senate Bill 275. It now will go the House of Delegates for consideration.
Similar bills have been considered in recent years. Last year, a bill to create the intermediate court also passed the state Senate, but died in the House.
Last week, the House passed a bill clarifying that appeals to the state Supreme Court are a matter of right and shall be reviewed by the Supreme Court and that a written decision will be issued. The bill would include that language in state code.
“I believe for a variety of reasons, the time is now,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump (R-Morgan) said during the floor discussion following Monday’s third reading of the bill. “The time is passed. It’s past time. This state needs one, and we’ve needed one for a long time.”
Trump also said bill will save $2.5 million a year from the collapsing of two administrative layers of review in the current workers’ compensation system.
Other senators spoke in opposition of the bill.
Sen. Mike Woelfel (D-Cabell) referenced 19th Century Priest and Cardinal John Henry Newman, who said, “We can believe as we choose, but we are answerable for what we choose to believe.”
Woelfel also mentioned the “opioid tsunami” affecting the state as well as children going hungry, a declining population, a “foster care system in shambles” and “crumbling infrastructure.”
“Mr President (Senate President Mitch Carmichael), you choose to believe – and you’re answerable for this – you choose to believe the answer to this is another layer of government – the intermediate court of appeals,” Woelfel said. “My conservative and moderate friends in Cabell County, business owners … they want to know from me why we’re growing another bureaucracy in this government.”
Sen. Mike Romano (D-Harrison) said proponents have said we need the court, but “nobody has been able to explain why we need one.”
“It’s the age-old promise that if we create this court, businesses are going to come running over that mountain to establish in West Virginia,” Romano said, noting that he thinks the fiscal note of about $7 million a year for the bill is far too low. “It’s a bunch of bull, and we know it. And my friends across the aisle know it.
“This is déjà vu. Here we go again. Same demand for a court that’s unnecessary and unneeded.”
Sen. Richard Lindsay (D-Kanawha) said he believes the creation of a new court is fiscally irresponsible.
“If you look at our budget estimate for 2020, we are not on track for general revenue,” he said. “We are not on track for personal income tax collection. We are not on track for consumer sales and service taxes. We are not on track for severance taxes.”
Lindsay said the current state Supreme Court caseload is shrinking as well, and he said the Supreme Court doesn’t have a backlog of cases.
“We have so many other priorities,” he said, noting foster care and senior services as examples. “Yet, we’re here talking about an intermediate appellate court that we can’t afford, according to our own estimates. It’s unnecessary.”
Sen. William Ihlenfeld (D-Ohio) said he opposes the bill for a variety of reasons.
“This bill is not going to help many West Virginians,” he said. “In fact, I don’t think it will help most West Virginians the way it is set up. This bill will help lawyers like me who bill by the hour. The bill will help corporate clients like the ones I have.
“It will not help the landowner who is battling big energy in a lease dispute. It will not help the homeowner whose home has been damaged by mine subsidence who is in a battle with the coal company. This isn’t going to help somebody who has been run over by a fully loaded Coca Cola truck and who is battling with an insurance company or whose family is battling with an insurance company.
“The amount of money we’re putting into this court makes my stomach twist when I think of all the other things I think we could be spending this money on.”
Sen. Stephen Baldwin (D-Greenbrier) said the spending is his biggest issue with the proposal.
“There are more than a dozen ways we could better prioritize this money that would help West Virginia more,” he said.
Other senators spoke in support of the bill.
Sen. Ryan Weld (R-Brooke) said the state Supreme Court is one of the busiest appellate courts of its type in the nation.
“We’re going to spend some money on this court,” Weld said. “We’re spending money, but it’s an investment in our judicial system,” Weld said. “It’s an investment in one of the three branches of this government to allow for better decision making, better review process, better appellate process that will benefit our court system.”
Trump spoke again, saying the idea isn’t a partisan “right-wing plot hatched in the Republican caucus.” He cited several independent studies suggesting the move.
“I would submit, and I think the statistics bear this out, that our Supreme Court now is busier than it was in 2009 when it was among the busiest courts in the nation,” Trump said. “Justice demands that lower cases get reviewed. That’s why we need this bill.
“It will expedite the appellate process for every single litigant in West Virginia. It is not a partisan question. It’s a question of justice.”
The bill would create two districts of three judges each – chosen by non-partisan vote – who would serve 10-year terms. Vacancies would be filled by the governor from a list of candidates supplied by the state Judicial Vacancy Advisory Committee.
The salary for the judges would be $130,000 a year. The terms of the judges would be staggered, and the judges wouldn’t be able to be reappointed.
The state Supreme Court estimates the new court would cost about $7.6 million to start up. The cost would be about $6.3 million the following year and about $3.8 million per year after that.