The West Virginia House of Delegates is poised to take another swing at an intermediate appeals court.
The House Finance Committee on Wednesday voted to send Senate Bill 275 to the full House for consideration with 17 days remaining in the 2021 Legislative Session.
The committee spent about an hour asking questions about the bill with only one person, Delegate Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, speaking about the bill during debate.
The committee approved its own strike-and-insert amendment to the bill, which was described as making technical clarifications to the bill and not substantially changing it since the House Judiciary Committee approved it on March 4.
The bill now advances to the House floor for consideration.
The House rejected the 2020 intermediate court proposal with one day left in the legislative session.
During debate in House Finance Wednesday, Rowe the called the intermediate court “a bad idea” that created a new state bureaucracy aimed at deterring West Virginians and small businesses from seeking justice against bigger corporations.
“There’s really no hue and cry that we’re doing a bad job with our court system,” Rowe said. “The Supreme Court has plenty of time to handle the case load it’s got. Its caseload has dropped dramatically, and there’s just no reason for us to take this expensive and unnecessary step.”
Danielle Waltz, an attorney lobbying for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, took questions from committee members during the meeting.
Under questioning from House Majority Whip Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, Waltz said the U.S. Chamber of Commerce supported the bill because it was their opinion that having the intermediate court would create a level of predictability in West Virginia’s court system.
“As the law becomes clearer…there are going to be less reasons to litigate once you understand what the law is,” Waltz said. “I think if you were to research intermediate courts around the country there is no crisis or there’s no outcry that people’s justice is being delayed in court in other states where there are other intermediate courts.”
Delegate Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell, asked questions raising concerns about whether a state with West Virginia’s population requires a level of court between the state’s circuit courts and the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals in Charleston.
He also raised concerns about whether the three judges on the intermediate court should be placed on the bench by special election or whether they should initially be appointed by the governor, which is what the current version of the bill establishes.
“Is it standard practice when one is creating and expanding government, making it bigger to appoint, rather than to have elections?” Hornbuckle asked.
An attorney for the finance committee wasn’t familiar with previous practices, but Rowe later said the family court system elevated family case managers to family judges, who now are regularly elected to their positions.
Delegate Daniel Linville, R-Cabell, asked whether shifting the court’s caseload, particularly in regard to administrative appeals could lead to cutting down the number of circuit judges in Kanawha Circuit Court, where those appeals currently take place.
Waltz said she couldn’t quantify that question without data from the court, which she said wasn’t readily available.
The intermediate court proposal looks different than when the Senate approved it on Feb. 24.
Under the current version of SB 275, West Virginia’s intermediate court of appeals would have one panel of three judges.
It’s estimated to cost a total of $5.7 million to operate annually, House Judiciary Counsel Joey Spano said on March 4.
Those judges would have 10-year terms and be paid $142,500 annually.
Gov. Jim Justice initially would appoint the judges to serve on the court starting in July 2022. Elections for those judges would be staggered in 2022, 2024, and 2026.
Filing an appeal with the court would cost $200, and the filing fee and other fees collected by the court would go to the Ryan Brown Addiction Prevention and Recovery Fund.
The bill would allow the West Virginia Supreme Court to “pluck” cases pending in the intermediate court, especially if those cases are time sensitive.
If SB 275 becomes law as-is, the single panel of three judges will begin hearing appeals in certain cases in July 2022.
They would consider appeals that now go to the Supreme Court, the Workers’ Compensation Review Board or the West Virginia Insurance Commission’s Office of Judges.
The Office of Judges would be terminated, and the Workers’ Compensation Review Board would be expanded under the bill.
Seven types of cases may be appealed, but not automatically, to the intermediate court:
- final judgments of circuit court judges in civil cases;
- final judgments of family court judges;
- final judgements of circuit court judges in guardianship and conservatorship matters;
- judgments in administrative appeals, which, by law, are filed in Kanawha Circuit Court;
- decisions by the West Virginia Health Care Authority regarding certificates of need;
- decisions from the Office of Judges in the West Virginia Insurance Commission, before the office is terminated; and
- final orders of the Workers Compensation Board of Review issued after June 30, 2022.
Cases that would be automatically appealed to the Supreme Court, and bypass the intermediate court altogether, include criminal, juvenile, child abuse and neglect, and mental hygiene cases, as well as certified questions of law from circuit and federal courts.
The House of Delegates is set to reconvene at 11 a.m. Thursday.