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New appeals process works, Supreme Court clerk says

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Nearly three years since its implementation, the new process for appeals to the state Supreme Court is coming to fruition, Court Clerk Rory Perry told legislators Monday.

"We believe this process is thorough. It's fair. It takes into account all due processes for appeals," Perry said of the appeals process.

Adopted in December 2010 in the face of calls for the state to create an intermediate appeals court, the new system requires the court to provide written decisions on all cases filed, including cases it decides not to hear.

Perry said that prior to the change, all appeals to the court were thoroughly reviewed, even those that were refused without comment.

"This was a massive undertaking in some respects, and not in some respects," he said. "We were already doing the work to review all the cases."

Senate Judiciary Chairman Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, said he believes the rule changes are working.

"My personal feeling is that they are a significant improvement in the appellate process," said Palumbo, who questioned why some national business groups continue to rate the state as a "judicial hellhole."

"I'm not sure what the national perspective is really based on," Perry responded. "I think they're making it up as they go along."

He added, "You don't set out to have fixed courts. You set out to have fair courts, and I strongly believe that's what we've got here."

West Virginia is one of 11 small-population rural states that do not have an intermediate appeals court.

By eliminating the court's ability to refuse cases without written comment, the number of decisions issued by the court has steadily increased, from 162 in 2010, to 678 in 2011, 908 in 2012, and a projected 1,369 decisions this year, Perry said.

However, the number of cases filed with the court has declined sharply, primarily because changes in state workers' compensation law -- including privatization of workers' compensation insurance coverage -- have caused workers' compensation appeals to drop significantly.

In 1999, 65 percent of all cases filed in the court were workers' comp appeals; today, they account for about 30 percent of all cases.

In 1999, 3,569 new cases were filed with the court. By 2012, filings had declined by nearly 60 percent, to 1,524.

Because of the decline in total filings, Perry said he believes the court can handle the caseload in a timely manner, even with the increase in written opinions.

"I don't think our workload is close to topping out," he said.

Cases involving businesses -- torts, contracts and real estate -- account for about 17 percent of all cases filed with the high court, Perry said.

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


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