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Justice Signs West Virginia Intermediate Appeals Court Bill

Photo Courtesy of W.Va. Governor’s Office Senate Finance Committee Chairman Eric Tarr, R-Putnam; Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley; Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan; and Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha; look on as Gov. Jim Justice signs a bill creating the state’s first intermediate court of appeals.

CHARLESTON — After more than 20 years of recommendations and attempts, West Virginia is getting an intermediate court of appeals.

Gov. Jim Justice formally signed Senate Bill 275 creating the West Virginia Appellate Reorganization Act, according to a letter sent to the Senate Thursday. Justice held a ceremonial bill signing for SB 275 Friday at the Capitol in Charleston along with legislative leaders and justices of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.

“Year after year, this bill has been tried and tried to get across the finish line. You’ve done it now and that’s really great stuff,” Justice said, surrounded by members of the state Senate.

SB 275, introduced on behalf of Justice, creates a three-judge intermediate court of appeals between the circuit courts and the Supreme Court. The appeals court would travel around West Virginia to hear cases.

The first judges will be appointed by Justice after the Judicial Vacancy Advisory Commission makes recommendations, then elected on a non-partisan basis in staggered 10-year terms. The new court should be up and running by July 1, 2022. The court will cost $3.6 million in its first year, including set-up costs, and $2.1 million annually thereafter.

The new court would hear non-criminal appeals of circuit court cases, family court cases and guardianships and conservatorships; appeals of administrative law judge decisions and final orders and decisions by the state Health Care Authority. The bill also replaces the Workers’ Compensation Office of Administrative Judges with a Workers’ Compensation Board of Review, from where decisions can be appealed to the intermediate court.

The new court will not handle appeals of criminal proceedings, juvenile proceedings, child abuse and neglect cases, orders of commitment, appeals of Public Service Commission decisions, interlocutory appeals, certified questions of law or extraordinary remedies. Those appeals and cases would continue to be handled by the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court also has the ability to seek jurisdiction over civil cases appealed to the intermediate court. Parties in cases would also be able to appeal to the Supreme Court, which could hear cases on its own discretion. All filing fees would go to the Ryan Brown Addiction Prevention and Recovery Fund.

Chief Justice Evan Jenkins said with SB 275, West Virginia becomes one of the more than 40 states and jurisdictions with intermediate appeals courts.

“The West Virginia Supreme Court is prepared and committed to taking the steps necessary to ensure the new court operates in a way that ensures the public’s trust and confidence,” Jenkins said. “That is what our citizens deserve, and the constitution requires.”

The bill has long been supported by business groups, including the U.S. and West Virginia Chambers of Commerce, and legal reform groups.

“The new intermediate court is structured in a way that should speed up access to our circuit courts and provide a more thorough, predictable and stable body of law in our state,” said state chamber President Steve Roberts in a statement Friday. “The West Virginia Chamber is also pleased that legislators took care to structure this new court in a way that makes sure our most pressing cases, especially those dealing with abuse and neglect, will continue to go to the front of the line for resolution.”

Opponents include trial lawyer groups, such as the West Virginia Association of Justice. The organization believes that court is not needed, will slow down cases, and costs too much.

“Rather than spending our limited resources combating the opiate epidemic and helping abandoned and abused children, the Legislature allocated millions of dollars to create another layer of government.” Jonathan Mani, president of the West Virginia Association for Justice, said. “The intermediate court is an unnecessary expansion of our state government that will cost taxpayers millions every year.”

Two different panels in 1997 and 2009 recommended the state create an intermediate appeals court. Since then, the Supreme Court changed its rules to issue written rulings on all appeals. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan, has introduced bills to create the court over the last several years.

“There have been many efforts to try to do it, and now it is done,” Trump said. “It’s going to benefit the citizens of West Virginia and the future of the West Virginia judiciary.”

With the new intermediate court of appeals in place, the Supreme Court will likely return to hearing appeals on a discretionary basis, which will allow the justices to focus on hearing cases with implications on state code.

“This builds upon all the good stuff we’ve done,” Justice said. “It is absolutely extremely attractive to our businesses across our state.”

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