W.Va. House Finance Committee Sends Intermediate Courts Bill To The Floor

Mar 2, 2020

A bill that would create a new layer of appellate courts in West Virginia has cleared its final committee reference and is now headed to the floor of the House of Delegates. But with the measure being amended substantially Friday in the House Judiciary Committee, its fate remains unknown.

The GOP-controlled Legislature has for some time touted an intermediate court of appeals to handle civil cases. But the current version of the bill expands on that  proposal. 

Aside from pushing back the start date of the intermediate court to 2023, the House Judiciary Committee added criminal proceedings to the proposed new layer of the judiciary — throwing into question the cost of such a bench.

After more than two hours of debate Monday in the House Finance Committee, Senate Bill 275 was approved on a 15-10 party line vote — leaving the measure unchanged from its previous committee reference. 

Democrats on the Finance Committee questioned the cost of the court system, given that the version sent to the House only included civil cases and had a $6.3 million annual price tag upon full implementation. But after the addition of criminal cases, a minimum annual cost of $8.5 million was widely discussed among committee members. 

Lawmakers on the lower chamber’s Finance Committee unsuccessfully attempted Monday to further change the bill.

Del. Jim Butler, R-Mason, tried more than once to change the location of what would be the home of a southern district from Beckley to another town. 

The Senate did not specify the location of where the two six-judge panels would meet, aside from stating they would be split between northern and southern districts.  The House Judiciary Committee carved those locations out Friday to include Beckley and Clarksburg.

Butler first tried to set the would-be southern district’s home in Spencer, then Ripley, then Hurricane, then Point Pleasant. All of those municipalities are all included in the state’s 4th Senatorial District — an area in which Butler is attempting to overtake Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, in the May primary.

“I think that my intent here is obvious to everyone,” Butler said. “I know it's kind of funny. But it actually, evidently, is not funny, because, from discussions that I've heard, a lot of the reasons that this bill came to be the way that it is — and these locations are for reasons of receiving the votes for it. And, unfortunately, I was not part of any of these discussions. This is the first time I've actually seen the bill.”

Del. Issac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, offered amendments that would have further defined scope of the proposed intermediate court system. 

In one proposed amendment, Sponaugle called for the court to not have jurisdiction over any business court division decision or cases involving mass litigation. Another proposed amendment would have had the court include abuse and neglect cases, which Sponaugle argued would unburden the state Supreme Court.

“If this is the will of the body — to be hell bent on passing an intermediate court — let's make it a good one, rather than junk it all up,” Sponaugle said. “That's all I'm saying.”

Both of Sponaugle’s amendments failed. 

As the bill made its way to a final vote, a partisan divide became evident. Republicans noted that past studies that have recommended the creation of an intermediate court of appeals. 

“I think we get sidetracked when we start looking at what town it goes in or what county or what the caseload would be,” Del. Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, said. “I think we focus on the ideas of justice —  and how we serve our people with one of the main functions of our state government that we should spend money on —  is justice. And we should spend money to have a good proper structural organizational structure to our court system.”

Democrats, though, countered that the unpredictability of future costs is too great. They also suggested that the system, as it is proposed now, favors big businesses. 

“I think that, fairly, we're looking at a bureaucratic boondoggle that this is a costly court and a new bureaucracy that we're creating,” Del. Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, said. “And, the record of the House leadership in the last six years has not been toward creating new bureaucracy. But here it is — it's upon us.”

Senate Bill 275 is now set for three readings in the House before heading to a vote. 

With the measure being amended in the House to include criminal proceedings, Senate Bill 275 would need to head back to the upper chamber for consideration, should delegates approve the bill.