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House of Delegates rules in favor of intermediate appeals court

CHARLESTON — Several attempts by the West Virginia Senate to create a new intermediate court of appeals have died in the House of Delegates over the years, but House Republicans finally passed a bill Tuesday to create the new court.

Senate Bill 275 creating the West Virginia Appellate Reorganization Act passed 56-44, with 21 Republicans voting against the legislation with the Democratic minority. The bill heads back to the state Senate for lawmakers there to consider the changes made by the House.

“This is my seventh year here in the House. I think we have considered a version of this bill every year that I’ve been here,” said House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, who left the podium to take his place on the floor to speak in favor of the bill.

SB 275 would create an intermediate court of appeals between the circuit courts and the Supreme Court.

The House version would create a three-judge panel for the entire state. The appeals court would travel around West Virginia to hear cases and judges would be appointed first, then will be elected

The new court would hear non-criminal appeals of circuit court cases, family court cases and guardianships and conservatorships. The intermediate court would hear appeals of administrative law judge decisions and final orders and decisions by the state Health Care Authority.

The bill also replaces the Workers’ Compensation Office of Administrative Judges with a Workers’ Compensation Board of Review, from where decisions can be appealed to the intermediate court.

The new court will not handle appeals of criminal proceedings, juvenile proceedings, child abuse and neglect cases, orders of commitment, appeals of Public Service Commission decisions, interlocutory appeals, certified questions of law or extraordinary remedies. Those appeals and cases would continue to be handled by the Supreme Court.

In the House version of SB 275, lawmakers gave the Supreme Court authority to take cases appealed to the new court at its discretion, as well as the authority to determine whether to allow the intermediate court to hear criminal appeals in the future should it choose to do so. All family court appeals will go directly to the intermediate appeals court instead of going to circuit court.

The price tag for SB 275 dropped from $7.9 million to $3.6 million between the Senate and House versions of the bill for the first year as the court gets set up, with an annual cost of $2.1 million going forward.

“There have been versions of it I did not like. There have been versions of it I liked better,” Hanshaw said. “On the whole, I think we’ve struck a good balance from a policy perspective here in terms of what our institutions of government should be, what we should create as a Legislature, and how we craft a process that lets citizens avail themselves of the very adjudicatory function that governments are designed to play.”

Amendments offered by House Democratic members failed mostly along party lines. An amendment from Del. Mick Bates, D-Raleigh, would have allowed employees of the Office of Judges to transfer or apply to other state agencies when that office shuts down. An amendment by House Minority Leader Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, would have required family drug courts to be established in all 55 counties before the intermediate court could begin.

Last year, a bill creating an intermediate court of appeals nearly made it over the finish line. That bill passed the Senate along party lines, but failed 44-56 in the House on March 6, one day before the 60-day 2020 legislative session ended. An attempt by some House Republicans to reconsider the vote was rejected.

House Judiciary Committee Minority Chairman Chad Lovejoy, D-Cabell, encourages lawmakers to vote it down again.

“This is a court we do not need, and that we cannot afford,” Lovejoy said. “What we choose to spend our money on tells the people what we think is important. This money that we’re spending here for a court we do not need is not going to help our seniors. It’s not going to help our veterans. It’s not going to help the foster children that we’ve done so much to help over the past couple of years, it’s not fixing a road. It’s not going to help food insecurity or hunger.”

While the bill was opposed by a united Democratic caucus, a number of Republicans spoke out against the bill, claiming it either went too far or didn’t go far enough.

“To me, the main purpose of this bill is to help big businesses and stomp small businesses, working people,” said Del. Tony Paynter, R-Wyoming. “There is no way I can in good conscience ever, ever vote for this bill. This is garbage.”

“I never thought I would be a proponent of an intermediate court of appeals, but I am,” said Del. Barry Bruce, R-Greenbrier. “However, not of this version of it…I’d love to have one, but this, this is not going to work.”

The bill has long been supported by business groups, such as the U.S. and West Virginia Chambers of Commerce, and legal reform groups. Opponents include trial lawyer groups, such as the West Virginia Association of Justice. Two different panels in 1998 and 2009 recommended the state create an intermediate appeals court. Since then, the Supreme Court changed its rules to issue written rulings on all appeals.

“Let’s do it. Let’s move the state forward,” said Del. Trenton Barnhart, R-Pleasants. “I tell you, I’ve heard also that people have said, ‘Oh, this is just another layer of government.’ Well, let me tell you, it’s not a layer of government. It’s another layer of justice for the people of West Virginia and for businesses, large and small.”

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