Speaker Rick Thompson and other West Virginia House leaders have proposed a study of whether the recently revised process for handling civil appeals ensures a full and fair review, amid calls for expanding the state’s court system.
Thompson, a Wayne County Democrat, and 15 other delegates co-sponsored a measure calling for a yearlong assessment of rules that were revamped in late 2011 by the Supreme Court, the state’s sole appeals venue.
Among other changes, the rewritten rules mean every appeal filed will prompt a written decision from the Supreme Court. Previously, opinions were limited to cases the court voted to accept for a full review.
The Supreme Court revisited its appeals procedure after outside observers such as the National Center of State Courts found it amounted to a discretionary process. All other states required that appeals be heard by either an intermediate appeals court or a “court of last resort,” according to the nonpartisan group’s research.
The House’s majority leader and whip and major committee chairs co-sponsored the study proposal, including Judiciary Chair Tim Miley of Harrison County. Three Republicans also signed on to the resolution, including Delegate John Ellem of Wood County. A lawyer and minority chair of House Judiciary, Ellem said seeking a study does not negate the need for an intermediate appeals court, which GOP delegates have called for.
With 46 of 100 seats, House Republicans have included a mid-level appeals court in their agenda for the ongoing session. House Minority Leader Tim Armstead said the caucus believes the revised rules don’t go far enough. The Kanawha County lawyer also questioned the study resolution’s wording — that out-of-state critics continue to allege “West Virginia courts are not fair and are perceived to be unfair.” State residents and groups have such concerns as well, Armstead said.
Lawmakers have considered creating an intermediate appeals court since at least 2009, when a commission formed by then-Gov. Joe Manchin proposed that step and others to improve public confidence in the state’s judiciary. A 2011 bill carried a $5.2 million-a-year price tag for staffing and operating such a court, as estimated by the Supreme Court.
Supporters of the study proposal include the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce.
“This is the kind of initiative West Virginia businesses want to see coming from our Legislature,” Chamber President Steve Roberts said in a statement.