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West Virginia Senate Again Passes Bill To Create Intermediate Courts

Will Price
West Virginia Legislative Photography
Senate President Craig Blair presides over the chamber on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021.

The West Virginia Senate passed a bill Wednesday that would create a new layer in the state court system for civil cases. As lawmakers noted, the push for an intermediate court of appeals has been a perennial issue at the statehouse for years.

Senate Bill 275 would establish an intermediate court to review civil cases between the circuit court and Supreme Court levels. The court would also review workers’ compensation cases and final orders from family court.

In explaining the bill on the floor, Senate Judiciary Chair Charles Trump, R-Morgan, noted that the changes proposed in Senate Bill 275 came following recommendations from an independent commission from 2009, under then-Gov. Joe Manchin.

“Legal scholars have recommended this improvement in our judicial system and it will, in my opinion, expedite the appellate process for litigants in West Virginia if we enact this bill,” Trump said. “It will speed appeals along.”

But Democrats noted that the effort has long been introduced in the Senate and has passed the upper chamber, but has yet to make it across the finish line.

“This is Groundhog Day all over again,” Mike Romano, D-Harrison, said. “I think the senator from Morgan said this is his seventh time for it — and this is my seventh time opposing it.”

The bill would create a northern district and a southern district — with three judges in each. Judges would be initially appointed by the governor, then elected. If implemented, the intermediate court would cost more than $8 million each year, according to fiscal notes provided to the Senate Finance Committee.

Democrats opposed to the bill argued the bill is an unnecessary expansion of state government and that the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals already hears every case that makes its way to the state’s high court. They also noted that the number of cases has dwindled over the course of two decades.

“In 1999, there were 3,600 [opinions issued],” Romano said. “[In 2020, there were 1,100]. Every appeal got an opinion. Every appeal was considered by the justices. Every appeal was decided on the merits. Why do we need it?”

While Trump acknowledged that is the case, he argued the state’s appellate system is not as efficient as it could be.

“It's now reviewing every decision that is appealed to it and issuing an opinion,” Trump said. “And in my opinion, that is not the most efficient and best use of the considerable talent that we have in the east wing on our Supreme Court of Appeals.”

Members of the upper chamber voted 19-15 Wednesday to pass Senate Bill 275. Four Republicans joined Democrats in opposing the measure.

The bill now heads to the House of Delegates for consideration, where similar efforts to create an intermediate court system have died in recent years.

A native of Washington, West Virginia, Dave Mistich joined West Virginia Public Broadcasting in October of 2012, as the Charleston Reporter. After bouncing around a variety of newsroom roles at WVPB, he now focuses on state-level politics and government, as well as breaking news. Dave plays on the world's best-worst softball team, Chico's Bail Bonds. He can be reached via email at dmistich@wvpublic.org and you can follow him on Twitter @davemistich.

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