In the United States, death and taxes are the two things that can be relied upon. In West Virginia, there’s a third assurance, that the Legislature will debate the establishment of an intermediate court between the circuit courts and Supreme Court.
The 2020 session has not disappointed, as a bill to establish a separate appeals court has returned. The Gazette-Mail archives are littered with opinions on the topic, and they generally break into two camps: Business interests, and politicians with ties to those interests, want it; those who work in and with the court system don’t. Sometimes the dichotomy can be tracked in one person.
For example, when Tim Armstead served as speaker of the GOP-controlled House of Delegates, he made establishing an intermediate court a priority — although it was ultimately undone by budget problems. Now that Armstead is a Supreme Court justice, he’s more noncommittal on the issue, telling members of the Legislature last week that the high court would like input on the process if it does indeed go forward.
The issue seems like a line item to be check-marked by West Virginia legislators and business interests on behalf of out-of-state donors and influencers, whether the policy actually fits West Virginia or not.
And the policy doesn’t fit. In fact, it makes no sense for West Virginia whatsoever. The Mountain State is one of 10 in the U.S. without a separate court of appeals. All of the states in that category have fewer than 2 million residents.
In a state with 1.8 million people, where appeals have dropped by nearly 70 percent over the past 20 years and the Supreme Court is handling its caseload just fine, why would West Virginians want millions of taxpayer dollars spent for another layer of bureaucracy? As the rules are now, these cases are going to the Supreme Court, anyway. Why put in another court, when that appellate court won’t even be the ultimate authority?
Checking a box for Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity isn’t a good enough answer. Slowing judgments against corporate interests through another level of bureaucracy isn’t a good enough reason, either.
West Virginia is its own state with its own set of dire problems and needs, none of which are helped by spending millions to create something entirely unnecessary. Legislators need to get out of the national playbook, and back to representing their constituents.