West Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Tim Armstead was noncommittal on the issue of creating an intermediate appeals court Thursday, telling members of the House Finance Committee, “We would like to have input on how that can best be accomplished, if the Legislature proceeds with that.”
Armstead indicated that abuse and neglect cases have significantly increased over the past five years, while other types of cases before the high court have varied, either somewhat increasing or decreasing. Critics of an intermediate appeals court have argued that the Supreme Court’s caseload is comparatively small and, therefore, does not justify adding an intermediate appellate court.
In his last year as speaker of the House of Delegates, Armstead had put creation of an intermediate appeals court “at the top of our list” for the 2016 legislative session. However, budget shortfalls that year ultimately put the new court — with annual cost estimates ranging from $4 million to more than $11 million — on the back burner.
Armstead on Thursday presented the court system’s $135.5 million 2020-21 budget request to the committee. That’s up $11.1 million from the current budget, primarily because, in 2019, the court used $10 million in carryover funds to balance its budget, freeing up that amount of money for general revenue.
However, Armstead noted that the 2020-21 budget request is lower than the court’s four budgets prior to 2019-20, as the court system has moved toward austerity after making headlines in 2017 and 2018 for lavish spending for office remodeling and travel.
“The court worked very hard, going line by line through the budget,” Armstead said. “We did try to go back through, and say, ‘Wait a minute, why does that number need to be so large?’ ”
The 2020-21 budget takes on special significance, since it marks the first time the Legislature has oversight authority over the Supreme Court’s budget, under a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2018 giving the Legislature the power to reduce the court’s spending by as much as 15 percent a year.
Previously, the Legislature had to approve whatever funding request the Supreme Court submitted.
Armstead said the increased budget request for 2020-21 also reflects back-to-back years of pay raises to court staff averaging 5 percent each year.
The 2018 and 2019 raises did not affect pay for justices, circuit court judges, Family Court judges and magistrates, whose pay is set in statute, he stressed.
However, Armstead encouraged legislators to consider implementing judicial pay raises recommended by the state Judicial Compensation Commission.
“We recognize that has to be weighed with all other budget concerns you have,” he said.
He said pay and benefits for the 1,452 court system employees are the largest portion of the Supreme Court budget, totaling $111.44 million.
Armstead said the court will need to hire additional probation officers this year, as the first inmates are to be released under a 2008 law requiring up to 50 years of extended probation for sexually violent offenders.
“You now have a population that will be on supervised release for the rest of their lives,” he said.
Also Thursday, Armstead said systems allowing electronic filings of court documents are operating in 20 counties, with the goal of reaching 33 counties by the end of the year, and all 55 counties by the end of 2022.
Once that is operational statewide, work will proceed on setting up electronic filing systems for the Supreme Court.