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WV delegates debate Supreme Court resolution, intermediate courts

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House resolutions usually don't draw the partisan ire of members of the West Virginia House of Delegates, but one resolution up for adoption drew some debate March 18.

House Concurrent Resolution 44 "Requesting a study on the effectiveness and efficiency of the Supreme Court Rules on the Appeals process in West Virginia" was brought before the House of Delegates for adoption. But Delegate Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, introduced an amendment to the resolution that would maintain the gist of the original resolution but extend it to also study the effectiveness of intermediate courts, something Republicans have been pushing for years.

"As I read this resolution, it almost appeared to me this resolution is saying … that the original resolution was basically saying we have done all these things to improve our legal climate and outside forces are saying we haven't done enough … we need to do more," Armstead said when explaining his amendment.

The language of the resolution, Armstead said, implies that West Virginia has done all it can to improve the legal climate and the study would prove that.

"That certainly, I believe, is not the case and is not the consensus of people across our state," Armstead said.

But supporters of the resolution had a different perspective. Delegate Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, said he opposed Armstead's amendment because it's putting the cart before the horse.

"I think we need to not lose sight of the fact of one of the principal problems with our legal system … has been the fact there's not an automatic right to appeal," Boggs said. "When the Supreme Court made their changes and we became an appeal-by-right state, every single case that's appealed to the Supreme Court, those receive a review by the Supreme Court, receives a written opinion and form all indications, and according to our own West Virginia state Chamber of Commerce that supports the resolution as it's originally offered, agrees it's time to put the issue…let's put the study first. Let's not put the cart before the horse."

Boggs noted that some outside groups, including the National Center for State Courts, have reviewed the steps taken by the Supreme Court to improve the business and legal climates in West Virginia.

"Across the country, they tend to see this as a very, very positive change," Boggs said. "Every court, every state, doesn't have the automatic, they don't have the appeals in place. We have taken that step through our Supreme Court."

Delegate Tim Manchin, D-Marion, said Armstead's amendment is "inviting division," and he encouraged the House to unite to reject the amendment.

It is "curious to me … that we now offer amendments to a fairly simple resolution that are, I think, intended to create division," Manchin told the House. "I encourage everyone to join in unity and to reject this amendment."

But Armstead countered, saying West Virginians are not united on the issue.

"I don't know that we do have unity in West Virginia about this," he said.

"I'm not trying to encourage disunitiy. I'm trying to encourage a realistic look at where we are. That's our job as legislators."

Armstead said he appreciates the steps the Supreme Court has taken to improve the business and legal climates, but those steps aren't the ultimate solution. He also said Boggs is missing the point.

"We need to be united," Armstead said. "What we need to be united behind is coming together, rolling up our sleeves and doing what it takes to put people back to work in this state."

Armstead's amendment was rejected on voice vote but the resolution was adopted.

Greg Thomas, executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse issued the following statement the afternoon of March 18.

"The Leadership of the House of Delegates continues to have its head in the sand when it comes to the need for legal reform. West Virginia lost more jobs that any other state last year, yet the House of Delegates has done nothing this session to try and create more jobs.

"Every year, the American Tort Reform Association identifies the most unfair and out-of-balance legal jurisdictions in the nation, and West Virginia has made the list for ten consecutive years. Also, West Virginia has been ranked dead last every year since 2006 on the litigation fairness survey published by the US Chamber Institute for Legal Reform. Until West Virginia guarantees an automatic right of appeal, our state will continue to be ranked last on these lists."