West Virginia senators approved a bill to establish an intermediate court of appeals for at least the fourth time in four years Wednesday afternoon.
In a case of state history repeating itself, Senate Bill 275 even has the same number as it did in 2020, when the House of Delegates ultimately struck down the measure.
The Senate approved the bill by a margin of 19-15 in the chamber where Republicans hold a 23-11 supermajority. Republican Sens. Amy Grady, Mason; Bill Hamilton, Upshur; Patrick Martin, Lewis; and David Stover, Wyoming; broke ranks to vote against the bill.
If it becomes law, the bill will establish an intermediate court, which would be comprised of two districts with three judges each, who, starting in July 2022, would hear appeals in certain cases that now either go to the state Supreme Court, the Workers’ Compensation Review Board or the West Virginia Insurance Commission’s Office of Judges.
The state is expected to realize $2.5 million in savings from eliminating the Office of Judges, but it will cost an estimated $7.61 million to implement the new appeals court, plus an additional $54,000 a year to the West Virginia Consolidated Public Retirement Board, according to fiscal notes reported to Senate committees.
With the bill making repeated appearances in the Legislature in the past decade, many of the arguments supporting and challenging the bill Wednesday were the same as they have been in years past.
Supporters of the bill say it would consolidate and streamline the judicial process, particularly for small businesses. The intermediate court also would make the court system more predictable for businesses and more geographically accessible for West Virginians, supporters say.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan, consistently has been the biggest supporter of the bill, saying Wednesday that enacting SB 275 is necessary for the future of the state.
“It’s long overdue,” Trump said. “It has been recommended to this Legislature for years by legal scholars. It’s necessary to alleviate the caseload burdens of the current Supreme Court of Appeals. It’s necessary to allow our Supreme Court to spend its time focusing on the development of the law in areas and cases where that is necessary and required, as opposed to its current practice now [of] reviewing every decision appealed to it.”
Opponents of the bill, as they have in years past, say West Virginia doesn’t have a population — nor does its court system have a caseload — that necessitates an intermediate court. They say the court would hurt West Virginians by keeping them from accessing payment and justice they are seeking from insurance companies, in particular, which have more resources to draw out court cases.
“The power dynamic hurts the injured folks, because insurance companies have the money,” said Sen. Richard Lindsay, D-Kanawha. “When an injured person wins at trial, they don’t win, and we’re just making it harder for them and making it a system where they get less money.”
Opponents also say that, if the state has $7 million to spend on the court, that money would be better spent on expanding drug courts, domestic violence courts, feeding hungry West Virginians, helping the more than 10,000 homeless children in the state, or alleviating the spread and other effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, said the Senate should set its priorities straight.
“We have a major issue that we have to address, and we’ve got a vehicle to do it, but not through the intermediate aspect of looking at it and other parts of it,” Unger said. “We could actually help the Supreme Court expand their treatment courts all throughout West Virginia. Every community, every family, all those treatment courts could rebuild families, rebuild West Virginia, where people want to stay, come, work, live and be happy here, and, once again, we could have community of common unity in our society.”
The West Virginia Association for Justice released a statement Wednesday against the bill, saying the studies that suggest West Virginia needs an intermediate court are more than 10 years old and the issues that existed then — a lack of automatic review of appeals and a heavy caseload — have been remediated by justices since then.
“Governor Justice and legislators claim they want to reduce the size of state government and eliminate all frivolous spending,” said Jonathan Mani, president of the association. “They claim they want to freeze the state budget for three years and eliminate the personal income tax. But what do they do? They vote to expand our judicial branch with a new court we don’t need, and waste millions. They’re talking out of both sides of their mouths.”
Under SB 275, intermediate appeals court districts would feature a panel of three judges. Those judges would be appointed by the governor, if the court is established in 2022. Elections for those seats would take place in 2024, 2026 and 2028, with each judge serving a 12-year term, in the version of the bill amended by the Senate Finance Committee earlier this week.
Senate Finance also amended the bill to increase the intermediate judges’ salaries from $130,000 to $142,500, to keep it in line with other judicial salaries.
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 court include criminal, juvenile, child abuse and neglect, and mental hygiene cases, as well as certified questions of law from circuit and federal courts.
SB 275 now advances to the House of Delegates.