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State Senate rules in favor of intermediate court of appeals

CHARLESTON — The West Virginia Senate rendered a verdict on an intermediate court of appeals, Wednesday, approving a bill that would create the new court.

Senate Bill 275, creating the West Virginia Appellate Reorganization Act, passed 19-15 Wednesday.

It heads to the House of Delegates next, where similar legislation has died in previous years.

SB 275 would create an intermediate court of appeals between the circuit courts and the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan, said the bill will help speed up civil cases and allow the Supreme Court to focus on significant cases.

“There are some costs associated with it, but I think it will be good for West Virginia,” Trump said.

“It will improve the process by making it quicker for litigants. It will provide our Supreme Court the opportunity to utilize their considerable talents … in areas of the law that warrant attention and development.”

The new court would hear non-criminal appeals of circuit court cases, family court cases and guardianships and conservatorships.

The intermediate court would hear appeals of administrative law judge decisions and final orders and decisions by the state Healthcare Authority.

The bill also replaces the Workers’ Compensation Office of Administrative Judges with a Workers’ Compensation Board of Review, from where decisions can be appealed to the intermediate court.

The new court will not handle appeals of criminal proceedings, juvenile proceedings, child abuse and neglect cases, orders of commitment, appeals of Public Service Commission decisions, interlocutory appeals, certified questions of law or extraordinary remedies. Those appeals and cases would continue to be handled by the Supreme Court.

Originally introduced on behalf of Gov. Jim Justice this year, the Senate Judiciary Committee made several changes to the introduced bill. Instead of 10-year terms, the first judges would serve 12-year staggered terms.

Divided into a northern and southern district, the first judges would be appointed by the governor from eight qualified candidates submitted by the Judicial Vacancy Advisory Commission with the first election for a 12-year term starting in 2024. The appointed judges — subject to confirmation by the state Senate — would serve in staggered terms, starting at two years, four years and six years. The first term of the court would start July 1, 2022.

Members of the Senate Democratic Caucus oppose the bill, citing concerns about the possible $7.2 million annual cost of the court, expanding government bureaucracy, and the overall need for the court given the state’s shrinking population and current workload of the state Supreme Court. According to the court’s most recent data released Tuesday for 2020, the Supreme Court disposed of 109 percent of the appeals it received for 917 cases.

“I think we need to look at our priorities when we decide how to vote on this bill,” said state Sen. Bill Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio. “I wish we needed this bill, because that would mean our courts are busting at the seams with business litigation. That would mean companies and large businesses and small businesses weren’t able to have their cases get through the court system, but that’s not the case.”

State Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, said the state could spend the same amount of money being set aside on the intermediate court of appeals and fund drug treatment courts for all 55 counties. The results of a survey released over the summer from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found that 13.3 percent of respondents admitted to increasing their use of drugs and alcohol during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Under this pandemic is another pandemic: it’s the overdose pandemic. It’s the drug use. It’s the alcohol,” Unger said. “If we’re going to help the Supreme Court reorganize, instead of doing it for special interests and other interests or whatever, let’s do it for the people of West Virginia and let’s put this money into drug treatment courts … and let every county and every community in the State of West Virginia have access to these resources.”

In closing, Trump reminded members that two different panels — one in 1998 and one created by then-governor Joe Manchin in 2009 and chaired by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor — recommended the creation of an intermediate court of appeals.

“That is the reason, if we will, for the intermediate appellate court,” Trump said. “This talented group of justices — as talented as any Supreme Court in the history of this state — should be liberated as that commission in 2009 said, not to address routine matters, but to focus its efforts and attentions to the optimization and utilization of their talents.”

Last year’s version of SB 275 passed the Senate, but the House of Delegates voted 44-56 against the bill on the next to last day of the 2020 legislative session.

(Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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