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With The House’s Approval, An Intermediate Court Inches Closer To Reality For West Virginia

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Perry Bennett
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West Virginia Legislative Photography
House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, and House Judiciary Chair Moore Capito, R-Kanawha, chat during a floor session.

After years of efforts that fell short, the West Virginia House of Delegates has passed a bill creating a new layer to the state’s judicial system for civil appeals.

Senate Bill 275 would give an intermediate court appellate jurisdiction over civil appeals arising from circuit courts, final orders in family court cases, final orders in guardianship cases and workers compensation cases. A single, three-judge panel overseeing cases from across the state would be established by July 1, 2022.

No criminal cases, juvenile proceedings, or child abuse and neglect cases would be heard by the intermediate court.

The measure passed the House Tuesday on a narrow 56-44 margin.

An earlier version of the bill that passed the Senate last month had split the court into two three-judge districts — one in the north and one in the south — and put the cost of an intermediate court at $7.8 million for the first year and $5.7 million for subsequent years.

According to current estimates, the cost of the court now stands at $3.6 million for the first year and $2 million for each year after.

During floor debate Tuesday, delegates acknowledged the idea of an intermediate court of appeals has long been a staple of the Republican-led Legislature since the party’s takeover of the statehouse in 2014.

Del. Tony Paynter, R-Wyoming, was one lawmaker who noted the years-long effort to create an intermediate court system. He offered pointed criticism of the bill and said the proposal propped up the interests of big businesses.

“Well, here we are, again. We fought this battle last year. But for some reason or another, this just keeps coming back. And seeing how we've run most of their agenda already, the Chamber of Commerce should be done with us after this bill,” Paynter said.

He argued that the court system would cripple small businesses and litigants with fewer financial resources in the appeals process.

“This will make a way easier for these big companies with a lot of lawyers to beat you out of money,” he added. “I don’t have to tell you how it’s going to end when they have all the lawyers and you don’t.”

Del. Nathan Brown, D-Mingo, argued that the intermediate court should not be a priority given other issues at hand.

“You never hear the talk of the need for an intermediate court. But what you hear, routinely, is the talk of better roads, for broadband access and a drug-free workforce,” Brown said. “If you want to move this state forward, you should focus on those three things — not a court.”

House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, stepped down from the podium to speak to the bill. He argued that the latest version of the measure worked in ways earlier proposals had not.

“There have been versions that I did not like. There have been versions of it I liked better,” Hanshaw said. “But on the whole, I think we've struck a good balance from a policy perspective here in terms of what our institutions of government should be.”

House Judiciary Chair Moore Capito, R-Kanawha, also spoke in favor of the bill and reminded lawmakers to consider that “perfect is the enemy of good.” He also told delegates the intermediate court system would streamline the appeals process.

“The number of appeals in circuit court are astronomical. They come from administrative agencies, they come from family courts,” Capito said. “We need to provide more predictability in West Virginia to those that are sitting in our trial courts waiting for an appeal. And time is money — time is money for the everyday West Virginian.”

Senate Bill 275 now heads back to the upper chamber to consider changes made in the House.

The West Virginia Legislature’s 60-day regular session ends Saturday, April 10 at midnight.


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