CHARLESTON, W.Va. - There's no need for the Legislature to create a new appeals court, West Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Menis Ketchum said."I think it'd be a waste of money," Ketchum said in an interview. "Our appeals are declining and we have no backlog and we have no trouble thoroughly reviewing every case and writing a decision."Ketchum began a one-year rotation as chief justice on Jan. 1. But his assessment jibes with that of his predecessor as chief justice, Justice Margaret Workman, who argued last summer the state doesn't need and can't afford a new court.That hasn't stopped some legislators from saying as recently as last week the state needs to create an intermediate court to hear appeals.Currently, the state's highest court is also the only state court that hears appeals. But it has begun taking steps to show the public it's taking seriously all the appeals it receives.Ketchum is set to appear before the House and Senate finance committees later this month.During the presentation, he is expected to tell legislators about a decline in the number of appeals that are making their way to the Supreme Court. He gave a similar briefing last week to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's staff.In 2007, the court received 3,954 appeals, though about one third of those were appeals of workers' compensation verdicts, which Supreme Court justices can now rather easily dispense with. Workers' comp cases have already been through several layers of administrative consideration before they reach the high court.In 2011, the court received 1,744 appeals. Again, about a third of those were workers' comp cases. The current court has also gotten rid of a backlog of workers' comp cases"To be truthful, 80 to 90 percent of the appeals we see have absolutely no merit, are frivolous or border on being frivolous," Ketchum said. "Now, on those kind of cases, we read them all, we consider them all, but we don't have to write 50 pages. What the public seems to have been worried about - the civil cases - we really have very few civil appeals."The number of civil cases has remained basically stable. The court received 386 civil appeals in 2007 and 374 last year.Before December 2010, the Supreme Court issued an order of some kind in every appeal, but two thirds of them had been short refusal orders that did not address the merits of the case.That changed under new rules the court has been using for the past year.The court now issues either a full opinion or a few-page memorandum decision in every case that is appealed to it. Once legal briefs are filed with the court, the court dispenses with 99 percent of appeals within 10 months, according to Ketchum.Even though the court is now writing 4 to 12 pages on each case, Ketchum said the five justices aren't taxed. The workers' comp cases, abuse and neglect cases and appeals of guilty verdicts, for instance, don't usually require oral arguments and don't present complicated questions for the justices to sort through.The intermediate court was the state Chamber of Commerce's No. 1 legislative priority last year, more than a year after an independent panel appointed by then-Gov. Joe Manchin said it would be a good idea for the state to have such a court.But the urgency seems to have slackened in recent months.In a recent Daily Mail commentary, Chamber of Commerce President Steve Roberts said the state should "review the thoroughness and usefulness" of the high court's new appeals system, but he said the state should be "pleased" with it.The Chamber and others have said a new court is needed to unburden the previously overwhelmed high court and to provide stability in the law.Ketchum said the high court's five justices have things under control now."Because we have so few civil appeals - whether they be business-to-business, contract, whatever - we can give them an inordinate amount of time, which we have been doing," he said. "So I really think the new system is working."He also noted that the court has received notice from the National Center on State Courts verifying West Virginia has been giving adequate attention to appeals.Still, House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said he doesn't think the court's appeals rules are good enough. He still wants to see the Legislature create a new court of appeals."I don't believe that the steps that have been taken at this point are enough," Armstead told reporters last week.The Senate passed a bill to create such a court last March. The bill would have created a three-judge court between the circuit courts and the state Supreme Court. The court would cost a few million dollars a year to operate, depending on its exact design. But the plan failed to garner support in the House.Senate Finance Chairman Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, said last week that the Senate could support the bill again this year.Contact writer Ry Rivard at email@example.com or 304-348-1796. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ryrivard.
West Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Menis Ketchum wears his favorite robe, which he received when he served on the Marshall University governing board.