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Editorial: Despite progress, legal system still faces challenges

Aug. 27, 2013 @ 08:42 AM

An update this week on the workings of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals suggests that new rules for appellate procedures are being carried out as planned.

The remaining question, however, is whether that progress will be enough to change negative perceptions about the Mountain State's legal system.

Business-friendly groups have harshly criticized the state's legal system for years, saying it does not allow an automatic right to appeal, has high damage awards and is a haven for plaintiff's attorneys to the detriment of business.

One approach espoused to remedy that image has been establishing an intermediate appeals court to review cases before they reach the Supreme Court of Appeals. Legislation has been introduced to establish such a court, but it never cleared the legislature.

The Supreme Court itself resisted the idea. But in an effort to show that all cases appealed to it are considered by the justices, it established rules in 2010 requiring the court to release a written explanation on any appeal it rejected without a hearing. Previously, the court had denied cases without providing an explanation.

Supreme Court clerk Rory Perry told legislators at an interim meeting this week that the court is on pace to release more than 1,300 decisions on the merit of cases by the end of this year. That compares to 162 decisions issued in 2010. He also noted that the court has not refused to consider a single appeal in the last two years, in contrast to the refusal of 1,917 appeals in 2010.

The report from Perry suggests that the new guidelines are working as planned. In addition, the steps taken by the court are making a good impression on some. Among those reacting positively was Steve Roberts, president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, which originally opposed the 2010 rule changes as insufficient. This week, he told the Charleston Daily Mail that feedback received by his organization is that the rules have "created an absolute right of appeal in West Virginia" and chamber members have been pleased with the quality of the written decisions.

It also should be noted that the Supreme Court has established a business court division which began operating last October -- another step designed to address criticisms.

But in much-publicized rankings of state court systems, West Virginia is still described as the second worst "judicial hellhole" by the American Tort Reform Foundation and was ranked dead last for the fifth year in a row in the State Liability System Survey sponsored by the national Chamber of Commerce. It's worth noting that in the chamber-sponsored survey from last year, the assigned point total for the state did improve by more than 25 percent.

Will the Supreme Court's progress be enough to move that needle substantially further?

The question is important, because the business community's perception of a state's legal climate plays big in many companies' decisions about where to locate or expand operations. All other factors being equal among possible business sites, most companies would avoid a place where they would feel vulnerable to a system viewed as "bad for business."

It appears unlikely an intermediate court will be established any time soon, if ever. But West Virginia officials will need to continue tracking how the state's judicial system is perceived. If the views from elsewhere continue to be so heavily negative, more changes may be needed for the health of the state's economy.

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