CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Members of the state Senate argued over the real need for an intermediate court in West Virginia and the cost of running such a court before approving the bill on a 23-11 vote Thursday afternoon.
The bill (SB 341), which was passed after a debate that stretched for nearly two hours, would create a court that supporters have said would guarantee the right to appeal lower court rulings.
“This a great idea,” Senator Mike Azinger (R-Wood) said. “This is an idea that needs to happen in West Virginia and this is an idea that’s going to put West Virginia further along the road to where we become a state that has credibility again and looked to again as a place to bring business.”
Senator Mike Romano (D-Harrison) argued the court isn’t needed and the state can’t afford it.
“It’s a waste of money. We’re doing it for one reason–to satisfy a political constituent, chamber of commerce, state and national, because every lawyer I’ve talked to has said this is nothing more than another hurdle,” Romano said.
A fiscal note from the state Supreme Court said the new court would cost more than $10 million a year but Republican leaders of the Senate have said it’s more like $3 million to $4 million annually.
According to the bill, along with other duties, the new court would hear government administrative appeals currently heard in Kanawha County Circuit Court, Family Court appeals currently taken up by circuit court judges and workers’ compensation appeals that are currently heard by the state Supreme Court.
The court would be made up of six judges which would travel the northern and southern parts of the state to hear appeals. The judges would be appointed and not elected.
Senator Patricia Rucker (R-Jefferson) said the creation of the new court is a fundamental right.
“I have to tell you that this is something that reaches across to everyone. Every single citizen in the state of West Virginia deserves the right to a fair trial and that includes a right to appeal,” Rucker said.
But Romano countered appeals are already heard.
“Our Supreme Court issues a decision, hears every appeal that’s made by every litigant and issues an opinion,” Romano said.
The bill now heads to the House of Delegates where it’s price tag questions may give it difficulty with delegates. The West Virginia Association for Justice, which represents trial lawyers, focused on the cost in a statement released Thursday afternoon.
“West Virginia is struggling to find money to address the real problems facing this state. This legislature is telling our school teachers, our corrections officers and state employees that we don’t have enough money to give them the raises they need to provide for their families. This legislature is not fixing PEIA. We are being crippled by the opioid crisis. We’re being told the money is not there for what this state really needs, yet this legislature can find millions to waste on a new intermediate court that we don’t need,” association president-elect Stephen New said.