Supporters of new appeals court must make their case

January 24, 2019

Abill has been introduced in the State Senate to establish an intermediate court of appeals as a layer of jurisprudence between circuit courts at the county level and the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals at the state level.

S.B. 266 was introduced Jan. 11 by Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson. It is co-sponsored by Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion. Thus, it appears to have the support of the leadership of both parties in the Senate.

The bill would create two court districts — one for the northern part of the state and one for the south. Each district would have a panel of three judges appointed by the governor and approved by the Senate. The intermediate court would hear appeals from civil cases and family court cases heard in the counties. It would not hear appeals of criminal cases, juvenile court cases or Public Service Commission decisions. The intermediate court would take some case load off Kanawha County circuit court, where some state-level cases are filed.

The court would begin operating on or before July 1, 2020. It would hear appeals of cases decided after that date.

An intermediate court has been talked about for years, but supporters have yet to make a compelling case for its need. Who is harmed by the lack of an intermediate appellate court? Who benefits from one?

The most recent estimates put the cost of operating the intermediate court at $5 million to $10 million per year. The court would have no permanent headquarters. Instead it would hear cases in various cities throughout each district.

So, is the court worth the expense? As an engineer or a financial analyst might ask, do the benefits exceed the costs? At one time, the Supreme Court heard appeals of workers comp cases. That burden has since been removed, and the number of cases before the court has declined significantly since then. Again, is the intermediate court necessary in light of the declining case load of the Supreme Court?

Assuming the bill is approved by the Senate, it must still be approved by the House of Delegates. Word from there is that House members are reluctant to add another layer of bureaucracy to the court system. Last year the Senate approved a similar bill, but the House declined to consider it.

The cost of government is going up. The teacher strike last year resulted in a pay increase for all state employees, and this year teachers could receive another significant raise. The Legislature is also considering a plan that would increase its share of health insurance costs for state employees. On top of that, there are bills that would grant some people relief from certain taxes. And the rate of pipeline and natural gas infrastructure development is about to slow down, which will further reduce state revenues.

In other words, perhaps the creation of an intermediate court of appeals would help some groups, but what would be the cost to the state? Can West Virginia afford another layer to its court system? Would the Legislature be willing to consider a sunset provision so the intermediate court could be abolished if it does not prove its worth by a certain date?

There are too many questions about the intermediate court to say it is a necessity. In the absence of good answers, action on this bill should be put on hold for this session.