Debate over intermediate court hits the House of Delegates, again

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The longstanding issue of whether West Virginia should establish an intermediate appellate court has hit the House of Delegates.

The issue has been promoted for years in West Virginia and was among the recommendations of a 2009 judicial reform panel established by then-Gov. Joe Manchin, a Democrat.

“One of the things we’re good at in West Virginia – because we do it often — is we ask experts for advice and then we ignore the advice we get,” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump, one of the speakers at a Thursday morning House of Delegates public hearing on the intermediate court.

The state Senate’s Republican majority in recent years has championed the cause, but support in the House has been less certain.

This year’s test begins Friday when the House Judiciary Committee takes up a bill that would establish an intermediate court.

The House of Delegates earlier this year passed a bill codifying that all appeals shall be reviewed by the state Supreme Court and issued a written decision. That’s been the court’s practice in recent years.

The argument for an intermediate court of appeals is to provide another layer of certainty for civil cases to be reviewed.

The intermediate court would take on civil cases between the circuit court and Supreme Court levels.

It is expected to cost $6.3 million to run. The intermediate court is envisioned as two districts, northern and southern, with three judges on each panel.

The judges would be voted into office by citizens to serve 10-year terms. The terms would be staggered, and the judges wouldn’t be eligible for reappointment. The pay would be $130,000 a year.

Debate in the House of Delegates kicked off Thursday morning with a public hearing that featured a who’s who of lobbyists on all sides of issues at the Capitol.

Charles Trump

One of the speakers was Senator Trump, who actually had several turns as people gave him their allotted time.

“There is cost. But justice is not free. We have to invest,” said Trump, R-Morgan.

He said the intermediate court would free up the state’s Supreme Court justices to be more selective about the cases they review rather than being subjected to “the hamster wheel of issuing an opinion on every single case. That’s not the best use of their skills.”

Trump concluded, “Having a fair thorough, efficient predictable system of justice and appellate review is good for all the citizens of West Virginia.”

Andy Walters

Not everyone agreed.

Andy Walters, secretary-treasurer for the West Virginia AFL-CIO, said the intermediate court would re-route workers compensation cases.

“This is simply another attempt to please big money business interests,” he said. “Meanwhile the legislature will have added another unneeded layer of government at taxpayer expense

Sam Hickman

Sam Hickman of the West Virginia chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, cited the cost of the new court versus other possible spending measures.

One of those is more money toward waivers for the intellectual and developmental disabilities program. A proposed state Senate budget allocates $10 million in additional spending for that program, half of the new spending Gov. Jim Justice had suggested.

“The term Bad Idea Factory doesn’t always apply to the West Virginia Legislature, but in this case it does,” Hickman said.

Betty Rivard

Betty Rivard, an independent volunteer citizen advocate who spends much of her time at the Capitol, made a similar argument.

“We have limited funds and already face future deficits,” Rivard said. “Please oppose this unnecessary funds and invest the funds where they are critically needed.”

Joseph Cohen

Joseph Cohen of the West Virginia ACLU said the organization might normally be in favor of an additional layer of appellate review. But this proposal leaves out an important group of people subject to the court system — criminal defendants.

“People facing the complete loss of liberty and freedom of movement are explicitly denied,” Cohen said.

“Criminal defendants have so much more to lose than civil defendants. Insurance companies are afforded more protections than people who face being locked in cages.”

Others spoke in favor of the intermediate court.

Brian Dayton

Brian Dayton of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce said an intermediate court would relieve a backlog from state circuit courts.

“Many of our circuit courts have a significant backlog, and that can limit all parties’ access to speedy trials,” Dayton said. “I would like to applaud the Legislature for giving very serious consideration of this issue.”

Jordan Burgess

Jordan Burgess of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse cited the state’s frequent presence on the Judicial Hellhole list compiled annually by the American Tort Reform Foundation.

“We continue to remain on the Judicial Hellhole watchlist, and one of the reasons for that is because we do not have an intermediate court of appeals,” Burgess said.

Danielle Waltz, a lawyer speaking for the United States Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform, noted the presence of intermediate courts in most other states as well as prior backing by both Republican and Democratic governors of West Virginia.

Danielle Waltz

“West Virginians are wonderful people but sometimes we don’t like change,” Waltz said. “It is long overdue for West Virginia to create an intermediate court of appeals.”

Referring to recommendations from many years ago that West Virginia should establish an intermediate court, Waltz concluded that there’s yet another opportunity to approve the court.

“Finally stop this debate after 20 years,” she said.

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