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On its website, the West Virginia Supreme Court notes that it’s “the busiest appellate court of its type in the United States.”

That’s not a good thing.

In 2010, the state’s justice system was under fire for being the only one in the country without an automatic right to appeal. People were calling for West Virginia to set up an intermediate court of appeals below the Supreme Court.

Forty states and the federal government have such an intermediate appellate system.

The Supreme Court sought to quiet criticism by agreeing to hear appeals directly. But five years later, people still say that West Virginia needs an intermediate appeals court.

They’re right.

The issue is structural. With only five justices, the state’s Supreme Court isn’t equipped to handle a flood of appeals directly from trial courts. That shouldn’t be its job.

What the Supreme Court should be doing—and what it’s not doing enough — is hearing important cases and issuing carefully considered, signed opinions that add to the state’s body of written law and provide guidance for West Virginia practitioners and judges.

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The thinness of West Virginia’s body of written law is one reason the state’s legal system has a poor reputation.

The court published only 77 such opinions in 2013. But it issued over a thousand unsigned, unpublished memorandum decisions. To have the state’s highest court spend its time churning out these memorandum decisions is a misuse of resources.

Why not push that function down to an intermediate appellate court — for example, a nine-judge court sitting in panels of three in rotating locations around the state? The judges on that court could give each appeal more attention than it currently receives.

And importantly, the decisions of that court could be appealed to the state Supreme Court. Currently there’s only one level of appellate review in West Virginia, while the standard around the country is two.

Opponents of an intermediate appellate court say that the state can’t afford to spend the money. It’s entertaining to watch some of these folks awkwardly embrace government austerity for a change, but the issue of cost is a smokescreen.

West Virginia’s entire judicial system is a mere three percent of the state’s budget. Adding an appeals court would be a relatively minor expense.

It’s a question of justice. When the state puts a criminal defendant in prison, or strips a parent of his or her parental rights, the stakes could scarcely be higher.

Litigants deserve closer attention to their appeals than they’re getting now. And West Virginia’s legal system deserves an appeals process that lets the Supreme Court do more of its most important work.

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