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House committee reduces price tag of intermediate appeals court bill

CHARLESTON — Hoping to make the bill more palatable to Democratic lawmakers and fiscal conservatives, the House Judiciary Committee approved changes Thursday to a Senate bill creating an intermediate court of appeals.

The committee recommended Senate Bill 275, creating the West Virginia Appellate Reorganization Act, for passage in a 17-8 vote, but not before approving a committee substitute for the bill.

SB 275 would create an intermediate court of appeals between the circuit courts and the state Supreme Court of Appeals. The bill, introduced on behalf of Gov. Jim Justice, passed the state Senate 19-15 last week.

The Senate’s version of the bill would create two three-judge panels split between a southern and a northern district.

The House Judiciary Committee reduced it to one three-judge panel serving the entire state, though the appeals court would be able to travel around West Virginia to hear cases.

The committee gave the Supreme Court authority to take cases appealed to the new court at its discretion, as well as the authority to determine whether to allow the intermediate court to hear criminal appeals in the future should it choose to do so. All family court appeals will go directly to the intermediate appeals court instead of going to circuit court.

Filing fees for the new court would go to the Ryan Brown Addiction Prevention and Recovery Fund through the Department of Health and Human Resources. Previously, fees would go to fund the West Virginia State Police’s forensic laboratory.

The Senate’s bill would have cost taxpayers $7.9 million to implement in its first year and $5.7 million annually after that. Under the House Judiciary Committee’s substitute, the court would cost $3.6 million to implement in year one and $2.1 million annually. Committee attorneys estimated the savings under the new bill would be $70 million over 20 years compared to the Senate’s version.

Despite reducing the cost of the court, several committee members said the new court was an unneeded expansion of government, too costly and could slow cases to the benefit of trial lawyers.

“This is a change that we do not need,” said committee Minority Chairman Chad Lovejoy, D-Cabell. “We do not need this court. The court is functioning fine and handling their case load. It declines each year. This is a court that we cannot afford.”

“I don’t understand why we need to add more expense on the taxpayers to the judicial system in general. I don’t know why we need this new layer of judges,” said Del. Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock. “I’ll be voting no, basically, because of the fiscal cost to the taxpayer. I don’t understand who’s driving this and why it’s so much needed.”

Earlier Thursday morning, the committee held a virtual public hearing on SB 275 to receive comments from citizens about the bill. Danielle Waltz, a lobbyist representing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said a 2019 survey ranked West Virginia 45th for legal climate, specifically citing the state’s lack of an intermediate appellate court.

“Some argue this is growing government, that we don’t need it, and that it is too expensive. These arguments must fail,” Waltz said. “There is no price tag on providing litigants with justice. In fact, the West Virginia Constitution contemplates the creation of this court, the very check and balance that West Virginia too long has lacked.”

Anthony Majestro, legislative chairman for the West Virginia Association of Justice, pointed to the original price tag of the bill as a reason to oppose the bill. The trial lawyers’ groups also believe the court could create delays in cases. He believes the state Supreme Court rule in 2011 requiring the court to hear all appeals is working just fine.

“As in the past, we oppose the creation of an intermediate court of appeals as an unnecessary expense for our state both in terms of its effect on litigants and its effect on the expenditures of our state’s finances,” Majestro said. “The National Center for State Courts has affirmed that the automatic right of appeal exists in West Virginia, so when you hear from others who say we don’t have a right to appeal in West Virginia, they are simply wrong and not telling the truth.”

The bill’s next stop is the House Finance Committee.

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

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