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 House 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 House 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.

In 2017 Texas created “Public Safety Employees Treatment Courts”, now Tennessee considering similar “First Responder Treatment Courts”

In the 2017 Texas enacted HB 3391 which created “Public Safety Employees Treatment Courts.” Based on the existing 2009 law that created veteran’s treatment courts, the new Public Safety Employees Treatment Courts were designed “for public safety employees such as peace officers, firefighters, detention officers, county jailers or EMS service employees who have been charged with a criminal offense due to job-related PTSD or other work-related mental issues.”

Now Tennessee is considering a similar move.

HB 2417 / SB 2414 takes the existing language from the state’s veterans treatment court statute (T.C.A. § 16-6-101 – § 16-6-106) and replicates it, replacing the word “veteran” with “first responder”, defined as “paid, full-time law enforcement officers, firefighters, and emergency medical services personnel who are employed by the state or a local government in this state.”

HB 2630 / SB 2325 appear to be almost identical; the only difference appears to be minor (placing three first responder treatment court advisory committee member positions on the drug court advisory committee).

Funding would come from a $50 fee for drug-related criminal convictions in counties establishing or operating a first responder treatment court program.

The House bills are pending in the Civil Justice Committee; the Senate bills are pending in Government Operations.

West Virginia: latest in 20 year effort to create intermediate appellate court advances out of committee; judges would not be “borrowed” from other courts and would not be subject to elections

For almost 20 years West Virginia has seen semi-continuously legislative efforts to create an intermediate appellate court in the state. The latest iteration has now cleared its first legislative hurdle.

SB 341 as amended and approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee last week 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.

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).

An amendment in committee to allow for judges to be elected, or at least to put the question to voters on election vs. appointment, was rejected.

Removed from the original bill was a requirement that the new appellate court render decisions in 180 days. Instead, the court would have to issued reports on pending caseload.

SB 341 now goes to the Senate Finance Committee.

Georgia: plan calls for creation of brand new type of court to handle business cases; judges would be picked by Governor; plan similar to one proposed in Texas

Georgia has one of the most complex trial court systems in the nation, with at least 6 distinct trial courts (Superior, Probate, State, Magistrate, Municipal, and Juvenile). Now legislators are pushing to create a separate 7th court: Business Court. This system would be used rather than as is the case now of having special dockets/calendars in existing courts (for example Fulton County Superior Court).

HR 993 would amend the state’s constitution to create a Business Court within 24 months of approval by the voters. The court’s decisions would be binding on all other courts except the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.

Moreover, unlike the state’s other courts which are mostly elected, Business Court judges would be appointed by the Governor with no senate confirmation or election (retention or otherwise) for 5-year terms and reappointed by the Governor at will.

The plan bears striking similarities to the Chancery Court plan proposed in the Texas legislature in 2015 and 2017 and discussed here and here.

The judges would have to be admitted to the practice of law for 7 years and “have significant experience in business or other complex litigation” but there is no indication how that is supposed to be measured. A similar problem occurred when Washington State’s proposed a distinct Tax Court (see here).

Finally, HR 993 provides the language to be used on the ballot

Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended so as to create a state-wide business court to lower costs, improve the efficiency of all courts, and promote predictability of judicial outcomes in certain complex business disputes for the benefit of all citizens of this state?

North Carolina: Legislature wants to redraw all judicial districts, votes not to hold judicial primaries next year, governor vetoes, legislature overrides

Since at least 2015 North Carolina’s legislature has taken a particular interest in redrawing the maps for the state’s judicial districts (see here). Having switched to partisan judicial races in the last 12 months, the anticipation was that NC judges would run in primaries in the existing districts in the 2018. Now, however, it appears there will be no primaries at all.

SB 656, entitled the Electoral Freedom Act of 2017, includes various changes to election laws in the state. Most critically for the judiciary, however, was Section 4, which eliminates the 2019 primaries for judges and district attorneys.

North Carolina’s governor vetoed the bill, claiming in part that this denied people the right to vote on their judges and was a first step to transfer the power to select judges away from the people and to the legislature. News reports indicate a “assisted appointment” selection plan has been discussed in the North Carolina General Assembly that would effective give the legislature control over initial selection/appointment to judicial office.

The legislature then proceeded to override the veto.

Meanwhile, the effort to redraw judicial districts (HB 717) was approved by the House in October and is in the Senate.

Michigan: new laws require state court administrative office certify all veterans, drug, DWI, and mental health courts

A set of bills previously discussed here, that require Michigan judges/courts that want to operate special problem solving dockets be certified by the state court administrator’s office has been signed by that state’s governor (press release here).

SB 435 (drug courts), SB 436 (DWI/sobriety courts), SB 437 (mental health courts), and SB 438 (veterans courts) provide that existing or new problem solving courts/dockets must be certified (“The state court administrative office shall establish the procedure for certification.”) or will be shut down starting January 1, 2018.

Michigan: Senate unanimously approves bills requiring state court administrative office certify all veterans, drug, DWI, and mental health courts

A set of bills previously discussed here, that require Michigan judges/courts that want to operate special problem solving dockets be certified by the state court administrator’s office has cleared that state’s Senate (news report here).

SB 435 (drug courts), SB 436 (DWI/sobriety courts), SB 437 (mental health courts), and SB 438 (veterans courts) provide that existing or new problem solving courts/dockets must be certified (“The state court administrative office shall establish the procedure for certification.”) or will be shut down starting January 1, 2018.

The bills are “tie-barred”, meaning for one to pass, they must all pass.

The bills have now been assigned to the House Law and Justice Committee.