Members of the House Finance Committee couldn’t pin down an exact cost for a potential intermediate appeals court as the committee advanced a bill that would create the court Monday evening.
Despite seven proposed amendments, the Finance Committee didn’t materially change the road map that would lead West Virginia to an appeals court between the county circuit and family courts if Senate Bill 275 becomes law.
The bill is expected to be reported to the full House of Delegates Tuesday morning.
This is the furthest that a proposal for an intermediate court has come in the past three years.
The Finance Committee approved the measure in a party line vote around 5:40 p.m. Monday, with Democrats questioning if it was worth the cost and if it even was needed given the state’s declining population and the decline in appeals filed with the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.
“What we’ve done is create a rich man’s court because whoever can afford to get an attorney in these appeals, they’re going to prevail,” said Delegate Larry Rowe, a Democrat who is also an attorney from Kanawha County. “They’re going to win. It’s going to be worth it. I’ve heard the term ‘lawyer’s dream.’ This is a lawyer’s dream because the lawyers are the ones who are going to benefit financially from the additional appeals process.”
Majority Republican delegates said the measure is one that will attract business to the state, saying out-of-state companies have asked for such court that’s said to make for more predictable outcomes in court.
“I think we need to focus on the idea of justice and how we serve our people,” said Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan. “One of the main focuses of our government and what we should spend money on is justice.”
Debate about the bill on Monday went back and forth mostly between where the court would be located and how much it actually would cost.
There are five fiscal notes attached to the bill from the West Virginia Supreme Court, the state Attorney General’s Office, the Consolidated Public Retirement Board, the state Insurance Commission, and the state’s Public Defender Services.
Much of the conversation up until Monday had focused on the Supreme Court’s fiscal note, which was just below $8.5 million.
On Monday, Delegate Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, said when he added up all of the fiscal notes, it added up to about $15 million to implement the court in its first year then leveled out to $13 million the next year.
“I think there’s so much unknown here, and I don’t even have a fiscal note that adequately describes what the cost will be to the citizens of West Virginia,” Skaff said.
Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, requested that an updated fiscal note be provided before the full House votes on the bill.
The way the bill stands now, the Supreme Court would decide which appeals it would consider and which it would reject. Right now, the high court legally may reject cases, but, in practice, justices issue opinions for every case appealed to the court. However, they select which cases will get hearings.
As the name of the new court suggests, the intermediate appeals court would provide a level of appeal between the county-based circuit and family courts and the Supreme Court.
Under the new court, the Supreme Court would be able to pick and chose which cases it would consider, meaning the court wouldn’t have to issue an opinion on every appeal made to it.
Right now the bill allows three provisions that people could use to bypass the intermediate court and go straight to the Supreme Court: if their appeal involves a question of “fundamental public importance,” if time were a factor in a given case and, therefore, required immediate consideration by the court, and if their case involves an issue that isn’t covered by existing law or legal precedent.
The intermediate court would hear appeals in criminal cases, civil cases, conservatorship and guardianship cases, family court decisions, administrative agency decisions and Workers’ Compensation Board of Review decisions.
Child abuse and neglect cases will still go straight from the county court to the Supreme Court, along with mental hygiene cases or appeals from the West Virginia Public Service Commission, bypassing the intermediate court altogether.
The creation of the intermediate court would mean the elimination of the Workers’ Compensation Office of Judges. That would mean worker compensation reviews would go through the Workers’ Compensation Board of Review, and any appeals of the board’s decisions would be heard by judges on the intermediate court. The way the bill stands now, those cases could be further appealed to the Supreme Court.
The intermediate court would be a two-district court, a 27-county northern district and a 28-county southern district. Each district would have a panel of three judges who would serve 10-year terms on the bench and be elected during the regular nonpartisan judicial elections during the primary election in a given election year.
The northern court would be based in Clarksburg, and the southern court would be based in Beckley.
During the meeting, Delegate Jim Butler, R-Putnam, proposed three amendments to move the location of the court to Spencer in Roane County, Hurricane in Putnam County or Point Pleasant in Mason County.
All three amendments were rejected.
Judges for the court will be elected during the May 2022 primary election, and the court would begin operation in January 2023.