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Intermediate appeals court continues to take shape in Senate Judiciary

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The Senate Judiciary Committee may vote Thursday morning on a bill that would establish an intermediate court of appeals for West Virginia.

If the committee passes the bill, it would be the first step on yet another legislative journey for a bill that has been brought up regularly in past years.

West Virginia is one of nine states without an intermediate appeals court.

Those who favor adding that layer of the court system have touted assurances that those who lose civil cases will have a greater guarantee to be heard.

Skeptics have questioned whether an intermediate court is necessary and whether the state can afford a new court system right now.

On Wednesday, lawmakers on Senate Judiciary debated the shape of the bill. Senators passed several amendments and knocked down a few others that were offered.

The results were expected to shape a whole new bill for the committee to look at during Thursday’s 10 a.m. meeting.

At this point, the bill calls for judges on the intermediate court to be appointed by the governor. Senator Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, proposed an amendment to let voters in November decide whether the positions should be elected or appointed.

Republicans on the committee spoke against the amendment, contending that appointments would limit the effects of money and public popularity.

“I think it is well-intentioned, but the majority of states appoint their Supreme Court,” said Senator Ryan Weld, R-Brooke. “It would be a good way to bring that to this court as well.”

Senator Randy Smith, R-Tucker, also argued against election of intermediate court judges.

“I think by appointing these they would be more qualified candidates,” Smith said. “They jockey for position, and the best way to do that is with money. With elections, the richest group wins.”

Woelfel seemed to get frustrated and argued again that his proposed amendment would give power to voters.

“I think if you vote for the amendment you show your confidence in the people of the state of West Virginia,” he said. “If you don’t, you say they’re a bunch of dumb, inbred hillbillies.”

The committee voted his amendment down.

Senator Mike Romano, D-Harrison, proposed an amendment saying that the party on the losing end of a verdict would be required to post a bond while moving forward in the intermediate court.

“If you’re going to be able to appeal things to two levels instead of one, if you’re going to be able to delay things more than a year, it seems only fair to assure those funds will be there at the end of the day,” Romano said.

Romano suggested that should be in line with requirements already in place for appealing to the state Supreme Court.

The other committee members agreed that being consistent with the rules already in place for appealing to the Supreme Court and approved the proposed amendment.

Senator Charles Clements, R-Wetzel proposed making the initial terms six, eight and ten years to assure they would be staggered. After the initial terms, the terms would be for 10 years to maintain the staggered turnover. That amendment also passed.

Senator Weld proposed amending out a 180-day deadline for the intermediate court to reach a verdict. His amendment would establish reporting requirements instead, like those that exist in other layers of the court system.

That amendment also was passed by the committee.

Senator Romano offered an amendment to stagger the parties of those who serve on the intermediate court. The bill currently has the court as nonpartisan, like other judicial positions in West Virginia are now.

“To avoid packing the court, staggering the parties of the court would be appropriate,” Romano said. “If you want to balance between the court, you have to balance between the parties.”

Senator Robert Karnes, R-Upshur, suggested the judges who are appointed to the intermediate court are likely to behave in a nonpartisan way in any case.

Senator Weld said, “I would hate to force a limitation on the governor in who he appoints.”

Romano responded, “Justice is blind. We don’t have to be. All I’m trying to suggest is a very simple rule that we divide them up between parties.”

The committee voted down his proposed amendment.

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