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With questions about cost, intermediate appeals court bill moves to Senate Finance

CHARLESTON, W.Va. —  A bill that would establish a long-discussed intermediate court of appeals now moves to the Senate Finance Committee with lingering questions over how much it might cost.

After several days of discussion, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the bill on Thursday morning. Republicans, along with Democrat Mike Woelfel, voted in favor of the bill.

The court would review civil appeals. It would be divided between northern and southern districts. And three judges in each district would be appointed by the governor with the consent of the Senate. They would serve 10 years at a pay of $130,000.

The intermediate appeals court would absorb the duties of the current Workers Compensation Appeals Board.

Mike Woelfel

Woelfel, D-Cabell, has been critical of the bill’s structure to fill the intermediate court with gubernatorial appointees. He would prefer the positions be elected.

But Woelfel said he thinks the bill will pass because the majority wants it, so he voted in favor while intending to press for more changes.

“It’s clear to me we’re going to have an intermediate court of appeals,” Woelfel said after the vote. “The majority is going to see that that happens. I want to be a part of the process, offer some amendments on the floor and try to make it the best bill it can be.”

Stephen Baldwin

Senator Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, said questioned the cost of the intermediate court. He wondered if a fiscal note — an official estimate of the cost — had been provided.

In fact, no fiscal note has been made available yet.

“As we understand it, there are going to be some savings and some significant costs,” Baldwin said. “But we only know that in general terms, so I didn’t feel comfortable voting on an item when we didn’t know the cost yet, especially when it is expected to be significant.”

Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan, said that the bill has gone through so many amendments that a fiscal note would be a moving target. He suggested the cost would be an appropriate focus of the Finance Committee.

West Virginia is one of nine states without an intermediate appeals court. The structure has been debated many times over the years in the Legislature.

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 layer to the court system right now.

The Judiciary Committee considered and adopted several amendments on Wednesday.

Charles Clements

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 passed.

Senator Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, 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.

Mike Romano

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. 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.

Romano today said he could not vote for the bill.

“I can assure you this court is going to do nothing to help our state,” he told committee members today. “I know you all are going to do what you’ve been told, what you’ve been instructed by leadership, but this is a bad idea.”

He cited the potential cost.

“We can’t give our teachers a raise,” Romano said. “We’re going to spend millions of dollars on something we don’t need.”

Ryan Weld

Senator Weld said his vote in favor of the bill was not because Senate leaders had told him what to do. He said he believes the intermediate court is a good idea.

“Despite claims, I’m not voting for this bill because I’ve been told to do it,” Weld said. “This isn’t something we just dreamed up in a back room. This is something that exists in 41 states across the country.”

Patricia Rucker

Senator Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, said she had made a campaign promise to try to institute an intermediate court of appeals.

“This is a campaign promise for me. This is one of the things I want to do for West Virginia,” Rucker said.

She added, “The right to appeal is an inherent right in our Constitution and our country.”

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