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West Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Evan Jenkins Pushes For Virtual Intermediate Court

JENKINS

WHEELING — Court proceedings could take place virtually in the new West Virginia Intermediate Court of Appeals if Evan Jenkins, chief justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, gets his way.

Jenkins discussed plans for the crafting of the new court during a stop in Wheeling on Wednesday. He believes virtual court hearings might be a convenient option for all involved.

“Post-COVID, we have, over this year, a much better comfort level with the use of technology,” Jenkins said. “Why should we let all the good investment and training and experience over this past year of doing business differently (sit idle), and not continue to use that for the Intermediate Court of Appeals?”

Three judges will initially be appointed to the court by the governor, then elected to 10-year terms by voters.

“Why couldn’t they review in a virtual capacity so the individuals involved could converse with the court in a convenient location?” Jenkins asked.

“We could have rooms in courthouses across West Virginia with the technology to connect individuals with the court?”

More than 50% of those involved in domestic violence cases before the court represent themselves and don’t have an attorney, according to Jenkins. Under the new structure, appeals in these cases from family courts will no longer go to circuit court, but to the Intermediate Court of Appeals.

“We need to make it convenient for a self-represented litigant who is in Wheeling…,” he said. “Let’s give a way for that litigant to appear before the ICA remotely and not have to drive to where the judges are sitting in a panel.

“Why hold a review in a virtual capacity so the participants can be in a convenient location?”

Earlier this year, Gov. Jim Justice signed into law Senate Bill 275, the West Virginia Appellate Reorganization Act of 2021. Under the legislation, an Intermediate Court of Appeals must be operating in West Virginia by July 1, 2022. The bill stipulates how the new court must operate.

It will consist of three judges, initially appointed by the governor to serve staggered terms. As the terms expire, there will be nonpartisan elections and winning candidates will serve 10-year terms.

The Intermediate Court of Appeals will have jurisdiction in these areas: circuit court civil cases, family court cases, circuit court guardianship or conservatorship matters, agency or administrative law judge matters; Health Care Authority matters and Office of Judges matters.

The Supreme Court of Appeals will have discretionary review of decisions by the Intermediate Court of Appeals.

“From the court’s perspective, we are now in charge of creating and building this new appellate court,” Jenkins said. “From my perspective, the debate over whether we should have one is over. Our focus now is on making the very best intermediate court of appeals in the country.”

More than 40 states already have such courts, and the move puts West Virginia “in the mainstream,” according to Jenkins.

“But we have a unique opportunity,” he said. “We have a blank slate and a chance over the next 12 months to build a court where the public can be reassured they will get fair, speedy and just review of their appeals.”

The Legislature also made it clear they didn’t want the court “to be located just in Charleston,” and that it should be able to hold court anywhere in West Virginia, Jenkins said. The next regular session of the Legislature begins in January 2022 — more than six months before the Intermediate Court of Appeals begins its first session.

“That’s why we need to get started on building this right away so if there are any tweaks to the legislation that are needed, we have the opportunity to have the Legislature address those,” he said.

Jenkins has a goal of establishing the framework for the new court “in the next few months.”

This is because Justice John Hutchison takes over as chief justice in January, and Jenkins said he would like to have details in place before he leaves the position and the Legislature goes into regular session.

The Judicial Vacancy Advisory Commission also has been charged with selecting the three initial judges for the court and submitting the names to the governor for approval by Jan. 1, Jenkins said.

He said the selection process could begin at any time.

“We could know by the end of this year who the judges are, and we would want to work with them, even though they don’t officially take office until July 1, 2022,” Jenkins said. “We want to be prepared to be up and running.”

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