What’s a Few Million Tax Dollars?

In the current economic climate, it’s ridiculous that anyone would ask a state government to waste millions in taxpayer dollars.  Yet in West Virginia, it’s happening.

Two front groups funded by corporate special interests—the American Tort Reform Association and the so-called Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse—are demanding that West Virginia create an intermediate appellate court.  It’s a court that would cost state taxpayers millions.  Of course that’s just pennies to them since their corporate funders are worth billions.  (Want to know more about them?  Check out these fact sheets on ATRA and CALA.)

The legislation to create the intermediate court carried a fiscal note totaling more than $5 million.  That is the estimated for the court’s direct costs though.  That doesn’t include the increased legal costs for state agencies such as the West Virginia Attorney General’s Office, the West Virginia Public Defender Services, the West Virginia State Tax Department, the Department of Environmental Protection, the Public Service Commission and others.  It also doesn’t include increased expenses for county governments because of their prosecuting attorneys’ offices.

Why this push?  They claim that it’s necessary to guarantee an automatic right of appeal.  Obviously they haven’t bothered to review our Supreme Court’s revised appellate procedures.

Issued in 2010 and implemented in 2011, the rules remove all doubt that everyone has an automatic right of appeal.  A report issued by the Court states that “according to the National Center for State Courts, the rule changes implemented in late 2010 define the appeal by right as a case that the Court must review, instead of a case that the Court can choose to review.  What this means for litigants is that each properly prepared appeal is fully decided on its merits, and appeals are no longer refused.”  And, it was done with no additional cost to taxpayers.

How are the rules working?  Very well.  In 2011, the number of merit decisions issued by the Court tripled to 678 compared with the previous year.  Last year, that total went up another 34 percent to 908.  The Charleston Daily Mail reported that “Changes to the state’s appellate procedures in 2010 have led to exponential growth in the number of written decisions issued by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.”

West Virginia Supreme Court Clerk Rory Perry presented the findings to a West Virginia Legislature Judiciary subcommittee yesterday.  He said, “We believe this process is thorough. It’s fair. It takes into account all due processes for appeals.”

Senate Judiciary Chairman Corey Palumbo responded that his “personal feeling is that [the new rules] are a significant improvement in the appellate process.”   He also questioned why ATRA continues to claim that the state as a “judicial hellhole.”

Perry’s response echoed what many have believed for some time: “I’m not sure what the national perspective is really based on.  I think they’re making it up as they go along.”

The facts back up Perry and Palumbo.

Despite the increase in the number of merit opinions, the Court’s overall caseload is in significant decline.  According to the new 2012 Statistical Report:

  • The total number of appeals declined to a 25-year low of just 1,524 cases.
  • The cases have declined by more than 50 percent since 1999, when 3,569 cases were filed.
  • More than half of these cases are workers compensation, abuse and neglect and criminal appeals
  • According to the most recent available report from the National Center for State Courts, West Virginia’s decrease is more than three times higher than the national average of 14 percent.

Then there’s the claim that West Virginia is “out of step” because we don’t have an intermediate court.  That’s not true either.  States our size just don’t have them.  Of the 10 without an intermediate court—Delaware, Maine, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming in addition to West Virginia—only Nevada has a population of more than 2 million.

The truth is that this push has nothing to do with whether or not West Virginia actually needs an intermediate court.  It’s all about delaying justice for West Virginia consumers, workers and small businesses.  It’s about increasing corporate profits for the defendants who wronged them.  You can earn a lot of interest on that money if you hold onto it for 5 – 7 years it would take for a case to get through the system.  As the great William Gladstone noted, “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

They also claim it would benefit West Virginia businesses.  If West Virginia has a few extra million in tax dollars lying around, why aren’t these groups advocating for small business tax breaks instead of an intermediate court that’s not needed?  Because that would only help West Virginia-owned businesses, not their national and international corporate backers.

West Virginia’s first priority should be West Virginians—the people and business owners who live and work here.  An intermediate court is unnecessary and wastes our tax dollars.