By Mannix Porterfield
Informal chats in the business community say West Virginia’s new appellate rules are giving litigants an even playing field in the courts, but House Speaker Rick Thompson and the state Chamber of Commerce want to make sure that is the case.
Toward finding that answer, Thompson announced Wednesday the start of a year-long study to see if the system is fair and efficient.
Provided the Senate goes along with the House resolution, an interims study would be arranged by the Joint Committee on Government and Finance, the speaker pointed out.
Chamber President Steve Roberts applauded the bi-partisan move at a news conference and disparaged the “judicial hellhole” label that other groups have sought to apply to West Virginia’s legal system.
“I’m uncomfortable with that label,” Roberts said, when asked about the characterization.
“I’m curious as to what can be done to cause that to stop.”
Hours after the news conference, West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse decried the call for a year-long study, saying this state is the only one witout an automatic right of appeal.
The group said Thompson and his House colleagues, along with some lobbyists, are ignoring the need for more legal system reforms.
“What’s the motivation here?” asked Greg Thomas, the group’s executive director.
“The personal injury lawsuit industry loves to have a state where there is no automatic appeal. It puts a gun to the head of defendants to settle or else gamble on the decision of a lower court on what may be very complicated legal issues, and it puts a fat wad of cash in the prsonal injury lawyers’ pockets.”
Within the past nine years, Roberts said the Legislature has enacted 16 legal reform bills, while the leadership has managed to begin retiring long-standing debts, lower taxes and provide fairer treatment to public employees.
“The consensus among people I talk to is West Virginia’s legal system is improving and I think that’s something we want to continue looking at and talking about,” Roberts said.
“The feedback we’re getting principally from the defense bar is that the rules adopted by the Supreme Court are working and they’re working very well.”
Thompson pointed out the new appellate rules were imposed by the bench after an independent commission led an exhaustive review of West Virginia’s civil justice system.
“We want to make sure that West Virginia courts are fair and impartial,” he said.
“We continue to hear from out-of-state companies and different organizations that West Virginia’s court system is not fair and impartial.”
In talking with the justices, the speaker said the high court feels its system is impartial to litigants.
“But it seems no matter what we do as a legislative body to improve our West Virginia system, including the creation of a new business court litigation system, which I was strongly for and championed, in spite of doing all that, we still get classified that we’re not fair, we’re not impartial,” Thompson said.
“So, we want to delve into the truth and see if the system is working and if these complaints are well-founded.”
The year-long examination will also tell legislative leaders if additional action is in order, the speaker said.
Anecdotal evidence passed on to him suggest the new rules are fair, Roberts said, but a formal look-see cannot hurt matters.
“To us, it only makes good sense to try to get to the bottom of this to take a look at the appeals that have already been issued, how the process is working and how those who are asking for appeals are reacting to the written appeals that they have been receiving.”
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