West Virginia: Senate approves big changes to judiciary; constitutional amendment would let legislature control judiciary’s budget; creation of intermediate appellate court advances

The West Virginia Senate approved two big changes to the state’s judiciary yesterday

Judicial Budget Oversight Amendment

SJR 3 as approved addresses funding for the state’s judiciary. Currently the West Virginia judiciary is unique among all states in that it’s budget request must be approved by the legislature without a decrease

The Legislature shall may not amend the budget bill so as to create a deficit but may amend the bill by increasing or decreasing any item therein. Provided, That no item relating to the judiciary shall be decreased

SJR 3 as introduced would have reasserted legislative control, striking the “That no item relating to the judiciary shall be decreased” language.

SJR 3 as approved by the Senate Judiciary committee struck the language, but added a protection.

Provided, That the Legislature may not condition the increase or decrease of an item relating to the judiciary upon a particular ruling, order or decision of a court of this state.

SJR 3 as approved by the Senate Finance committee changed the wording further still

Provided, That the Legislature may not make any law that conditions the increase or decrease of an item relating to the judiciary upon a particular ruling, order, or decision of a court of this state

The Senate Finance language was approved by the full Senate. If approved by the House it would still have be approved by voters.

Intermediate Appellate Court (at least for the next 10 years)

SB 341 as amended and approved by the full Senate yesterday is the latest in a 20 year effort to get an intermediate appellate court in the state.

SB 341 would create a court with two geographic districts (Northern and Southern) each with its own panel made up of 3 judges. Judges would not be “borrowed” from other courts; prior proposals would have created 3 judge panels made of 1 Supreme Court justice sitting with 3 Circuit Court judges. The court would automatically sunset in July 2029.

Interestingly, the judges of the new court would NOT be subject to any sort of election. Instead there would be a 3-step process.

  1. The state’s existing Judicial Vacancy Advisory Commission, currently used to fill interim vacancies, would submit names to the governor for each vacancy.
  2. The governor would then appoint a person subject to Senate confirmation.
  3. Once appointed, the judge serves for 10 years and may be reappointed. (Some of the first set of judges would serve 6-year or 8-year terms in order to create a staggered term system).

Included is a provision that civil appeals would lie either to the Intermediate Court of Appeals or Supreme Court of Appeals and that in civil cases “shall be afforded a full and meaningful review, and an opportunity to be heard, by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals or the Intermediate Court of Appeals, and a written decision on the merits shall be issued, as a matter of right.”

SB 341 now goes to the House.