The West Virginia House of Delegates put a proposed intermediate court of appeals to rest Friday afternoon with no chance of reviving it with one day left in the legislative session.
Debate in the House seemed to settle down to a question asked by Delegate Chad Lovejoy, D-Cabell, who told delegates to ask themselves if the court was necessary and if the state could afford it.
In the end, however they decided to answer the questions, delegates rejected the bill.
By rejecting the motion to reconsider their vote on SB 275, the House essentially guaranteed that the bill wouldn’t come back to life this session. House rules provide that delegates may vote only one time on whether to give a bill a second vote.
“It’s odd that you make a motion to reconsider, then ask the body to vote red,” said House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, who made the motion to reconsider the vote. “I’m doing that so the vote we just made can end the discussion on the bill this year. It ends the browbeating. It ends the lobbying. It ends the threatening. It is a symbolic message of what our priorities are.”
If it had become law, SB 275 would have set up a court that would allow people to appeal certain decisions from county circuit and family court judges to the intermediate court, instead of straight to the West Virginia Supreme Court.
There would have been two districts, each with three judges who would have been elected in 2022 and began service in January 2023. Estimates for the cost of the court ranged from $8 million to $15 million.
The court was a hot-button issue this session and the House vote marked the furthest an intermediate court proposal had come during the past three legislative sessions.
The Senate approved intermediate court proposals in 2018 and 2019, but both bills died before the House Judiciary Committee.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan, has been the bill’s biggest advocate in the Legislature. He presented it in the Senate, and he even attended a public hearing in the House and a House Judiciary Committee meeting to talk about the bill.
After the House rejected the bill, Trump said he still believes the court is an important measure for West Virginia, but he accepts that “the judgement to the House of Delegates is to the contrary.”
“Obviously I’m disappointed, but it is the process,” Trump said. “It’s part of the process. The House, I think, examined it carefully. I know it took up some time in their Judiciary Committee. I think they had a full debate of it on the floor, and they’ve passed their judgment. So, that’s the process.”
Supporters of the bill have said an intermediate court would provide some clarity and predictability in West Virginia’s judicial system that businesses favor, and that it ultimately would attract more business to the state. They also said it would expedite justice for people who need it most.
People who were against the bill said the Supreme Court’s caseload has dropped significantly in recent years and that adding an intermediate court would empower big businesses with more resources to bury West Virginians in the legal system. They also said proponents didn’t show evidence that it actually would expedite justice and that no one could provide a clear price tag on the court or guarantee the state would be able to pay for it.
During a floor speech Friday, Delegate Scott Cadle, R-Mason, said the bill was “a Chamber of Commerce bill, and we bow to the chamber because they send a big check.”
Cadle, a trucker by trade, said someone in the Senate offered to push through a resolution Cadle sponsored in exchange for his vote supporting the intermediate court.
“After I thought about it, you know what I said? I came here. I’m Scott Cadle, and I don’t take no crap from nobody and I don’t back down from nobody,” he said. “I don’t care if I don’t get anything passed, which I know I won’t. I can go home and tell my people [that] at least I stood there for you. I worked for the small guy.”
House Judiciary Vice Chairman Moore Capito, R-Kanawha, told delegates their concerns about the cost weren’t consistent with the reality of the court, which he said wouldn’t cost the state anything until 2022.
Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer, said he supported the measure because it was a chance to be proactive before what is expected to be substantial energy developments in the state. He said West Virginia is on a launch pad for a rocket ride, channeling Gov. Jim Justice’s State of the State address in January when he asked the Legislature to push the intermediate court across the finish line this session.
Shott, who isn’t seeking re-election this year, said he had confidence in lawmakers to refine the court in coming years, had it become law.
“When you see my light light-up green, you can interpret that as my confidence not only in the work we’ve done, but in all of you who will be here next year,” Shott said. “We’ve got two years to fine tune this law. You’ve got two years to put into place the infrastructure in our judicial system that we need as we prosper forward, not at some crisis point when we have to have problems when we’re so backlogged.”
The 2020 regular legislative session ends today.