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Delegates call for study of new appeals process

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, announced Wednesday that he and 15 delegates are calling for a yearlong study of the state Supreme Court's new appeals process.

"We want to make sure West Virginia's courts are fair and impartial," Thompson said at a morning press conference.

Thompson said the resolution (HCR44) is not a preemptive strike against any legislation to create an intermediate appeals court in the state. A perennial issue, there is at least one bill introduced this session to do that, a Senate bill (SB113), with Senate Minority Leader Mike Hall, R-Putnam, as the lead sponsor.

"We want to see if West Virginia's system is working before we go out and spend millions of dollars in a tight budget year," Thompson said, referring to the cost of setting up an intermediate court.

"This study will tell us if we need to take more action."

In December 2010, the high court adopted new procedures intended to make the appeals process more efficient and transparent, to answer critics who contend the state is a "judicial hellhole."

A key change is that the court is now required to provide a written explanation when it declines to hear an appeal of a circuit court ruling.

Previously, the court could refuse to hear appeals without comment or explanation -- something the state Chamber of Commerce contended was not business-friendly.

On Wednesday, chamber president Steve Roberts said anecdotal evidence is that the new rules are effective, but said a year-long study to evaluate the appellate rules would be invaluable.

"We think this is a very, very good idea," Roberts said. "We applaud the leadership of the House of Delegates for taking this on."

Supreme Court Justice Menis Ketchum attended the news conference, and he welcomes a review of the new appellate process. 

"If they tell us it's not working, we'll try something else," he said.

Thompson said he believes the Supreme Court and Legislature have taken numerous steps to improve the state's business climate, including last year creating a separate state business court to hear commercial litigation cases.

Nevertheless, he said, "We still get classified that we're not fair, that we're not impartial. We want to delve into the truth."

As a concurrent resolution, HCR44, has to be passed by both the House and Senate. Once adopted, the Joint Committee on Government and Finance would appoint a legislative interim committee to study the issue during monthly interim meetings from this June to January 2014.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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