CHARLESTON - The number of filings in the state Supreme Court reached its lowest level in more than 25 years in 2012, according to a report presented to state lawmakers on Monday.
The report by court clerk Rory Perry says there were 1,524 cases filed in 2012, down from 1,744 the year before. The court's all-time high of nearly 4,000 cases came in 2007.
Perry said that legislative reforms and privatization of the state's workers compensation system have led to the caseload decrease. The Legislature set up BrickStreet Mutual Insurance Co. in 2005 to replace what had been a state-run system. It spun off as a private company the following year, and competing insurers entered that market in 2010.
The 446 workers' compensation appeals filed last year comprised 29 percent of the court's caseload, which is the lowest percentage since 1986. Workers compensation cases had made up as much as 65 percent of the court's caseload as recently as 1999, Perry said.
Perry pointed to the reduced caseload as evidence that the five-member court can handle other administrative changes it recently made in an effort to be more transparent about its decision making process.
Until a few years ago, opinions were limited to cases the court voted to accept for a full review. Now, every appeal filed prompts a written decision from the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court in 2010 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.
Perry said the court had already been reviewing every case, so there wasn't much additional work created by the new rules outside of the written explanation for its decision. In 2011, the first year the new rules went into effect, there were 678 written opinions issued. In 2012, that figure jumped to 908 - a 34 percent increase. At the same time, the number of appeals filed that the court will have to respond to with a written opinion dropped from 1,490 in 2011 to 1,283 in 2012.
Despite that increase, the report says the court complies with the time standards for appellate courts that are recommended by the American Bar Association, with more than 90 percent of appeals being resolved in less than a year from when they can be considered. In cases involving the abuse and neglect of children, that time is less than 9 months, according to the report.
Perry addressed lawmakers at a legislative hearing amid calls by some lawmakers to create an intermediary appeals court.
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.
"The foremost management task facing the Court in 2012 was to continue the stable transition to an appeal by right. By continuing to increase the number of decisions on the merits and keeping pace with incoming filings, the Court successfully made that transition," Perry wrote.