W.Va. Delegates Amend Intermediate Court Bill To Include Criminal Appeals

Feb 28, 2020

A bill to create an intermediate court of appeals in West Virginia passed the House Judiciary Committee Friday with a few noteworthy changes and, ultimately, a favorable recommendation.

Republicans say the creation of an intermediate court will speed up the judicial process in West Virginia, where the state Supreme Court is the only entity accepting appeals to lower court decisions. The majority party has argued an accelerated appeals process could in turn attract more businesses to the state and benefit smaller, local businesses struggling with litigation.

Democrats, on the other hand, question whether creating an intermediate court will actually expedite the appeals process or just add an extra and costly step. As lawmakers turn their focus to the upcoming fiscal year’s budget, the minority party also asked on Friday whether an intermediate court is worth the investment. 

Senate Bill 275 was sent to the House Judiciary Committee after the Senate voted 23 to 11  to pass the bill. A day before the vote, Sen. William Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, unsuccessfully attempted to amend the bill to include criminal appeals.

That amendment, proposed this time by a Republican, made it into the House Judiciary version of the bill Friday night. Delegates agreed unanimously to accept the amendment from Del. Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, even though the committee later disagreed along party lines when it came to passing the entire bill. 

“I don't think this is going to increase cost much,” Steele said of his amendment. “And in what I have to say about this is, to me, this is the right way to do it. And I would rather pay a little bit more to do it the right way and pay less and do it the wrong way.”

Information from the state’s Public Defender Services estimates adding criminal cases will increase what the state spends on hiring private attorneys by $1.2 million annually.

The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals says creating the entire court would cost about $7.5 million in its first year and then about $6.3 million annually. The Consolidated Public Retirement Board projects an annual price tag of $55,000 for judges’ benefits.

On Friday, delegates in the House Judiciary Committee also agreed to amend the bill to delay implementation (and spending) on the intermediate court until 2023.

While debating the bill, Del. Chad Lovejoy, D-Cabell, said creating an intermediate court likely will cost more than lawmakers expect. Referring to information the committee heard earlier on Friday, he added that appeals have declined over the years in West Virginia, one of nine low-population states without an intermediate court of appeals.

House Judiciary Vice Chair Moore Capito, R-Kanawha, said that Republican lawmakers took a “toe in the water approach” when it came to budgeting for the intermediate court.

“We’ve pushed that data out, we’ve given the folks that are going to be impacted by this, the folks that are going to stand up this program, a chance to look at it, and ultimately, give us a better idea of what it costs,” Capito said. 

An amendment from Steele to specify placement of the court — one location serving a Southern District in Beckley and another to take cases in a Northern District in Clarksburg — also succeeded. 

A proposal from Del. Joe Canestraro, D-Marshall, to amend the bill so that child welfare actions, including juvenile offenses and abuse and neglect cases, are appealed to the intermediate court, failed 12-13. 

Capito was one of the delegates who spoke against the proposal. 

“We’re dealing with extremely vulnerable individuals in our society, who need the most expedited appeal available to them,” Capito said.  

“If we’re dealing with the most vulnerable citizens in our society, then we should give them a quicker appeal right to an intermediate court first,” Canestraro said. “I think our children are more important than any business aspect being able to be appealed here.” 

Del. Andrew Robinson, D-Kanawha, later used this exchange to question who the intermediate court system will actually be faster for. 

“I can’t figure out what the exact reason for this court is. When we discuss it, we say it’s fast or it’s slow, and we argue back and forth,” Robinson said. “… Do we really know what we’re doing here?”

While the bill is still set for consideration in House Finance next, Republican leadership could still decide to waive that reference.

Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.