A bill that would create another appellate layer within West Virginia’s judiciary is headed to a vote after being further amended Thursday on the floor of the House of Delegates. With Senate Bill 275 on the amendment stage, delegates approved three changes before accepting others made by the House Judiciary Committee.
With the measure now calling for an intermediate court to hear criminal cases, delegates have considerably altered the bill from the version sent to them by the Senate. That change — along with others made Thursday — have brought questions of costs that remain, for now, unanswered.
The state Supreme Court initially estimated an annual cost of $6.3 million once the intermediate court was fully implemented. But with the addition of criminal cases, that number has risen to as much as $8.5 million a year. The state Insurance Commission has estimated about $2.5 million in savings because the intermediate court would consolidate workers’ compensation cases.
However, another fiscal note from the West Virginia Attorney General anticipates $2 million in costs associated with representing the state and its agencies in litigation. Additionally, Public Defender Services has said it would need another $1.2 million to handle criminal appeals.
Amendments adopted Thursday further throw the overall cost into question.
Del. Liza Zukoff, D-Marshall, offered an amendment Thursday that adds child welfare cases — including those involving abuse and neglect, foster care and juvenile justice — to the proposed intermediate court of appeals.
“It just doesn't make any sense to deny children in their family the same additional right of appeals and protections offered by this bill — if we're going to have an intermediate court,” Zukoff said.
Zukoff’s amendment was adopted on a 51-48 vote.
Delegates also considered an amendment that addressed where proceedings of the intermediate court would take place. Last week, members of the House Judiciary Committee specified that the intermediate court of appeals — which would be split between a Northern and Southern District — would operate in Clarksburg and Beckley, respectively.
Del. Chad Lovejoy, D-Cabell, proposed an amendment that would have walked back that change from the House Judiciary Committee and allow the intermediate courts to operate in any location within the respective districts.
“If we are going to create this court, we should require it to conduct business in all of our cities,” Lovejoy said.
Lovejoy’s amendment was adopted with another 51-48 vote.
A third amendment adopted Thursday clarified the state Attorney General would represent state agencies involved in litigation on the intermediate level. That change was offered by Del. Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, who argued the costs of intermediate appeals could financially burden counties.
“This just reaffirms what's already in code, what’s already in standard practice in our communities — that the Attorney General is going to handle appellate matters,” Steele said. “Your local prosecutors are there at the trial court level, they have a busy docket and the prosecutors that I've heard from are [saying] if this doesn't get amended, the necessity to hire more people and things like that and [it’ll] increase the cost and burden on your own counties.”
Steele’s amendment was adopted 54-45.
Following the adoption of the amendments and before advancing the bill on to Third Reading, House Judiciary Chair John Shott, R-Mercer, noted that questions remain about the actual costs of the intermediate court.
Shott also noted that — given changes in his committee that pushed the start date back to January 1, 2023 — there is time to get answers to many of the questions that remain about the proposed system.
“There's a lot that's up in the air. This gives us time to plan and balance out our budget requirements as we staff this court and determine what jurisdiction we're going to give it,” Shott said. “So I think it makes a great deal of sense to delay the implementation of this — and that's exactly what the strike and insert amendment does.”
Before moving along to additional business of the day, Del. Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, requested House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, call for an updated fiscal note on the bill ahead of a vote.
Senate Bill 275 heads to a final vote Friday in the House of Delegates. Should the bill pass, it would head back to the Senate for lawmakers to consider the changes made in the House.
Saturday, March 7 at midnight marks the end of the 60-day legislative session.