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Senate backs intermediate court again; will House follow suit?

CHARLESTON — For the third year in a row, West Virginia senators have agreed to create an intermediate appeals court in the state and sent the bill to the House of Delegates, where it has died the last two years.

Senators on Monday approved the bill (SB 275) on an 18-14 vote. Sens. Charles Clements, R-Wetzel, and Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, joined every Democrat present in voting against the bill. Sens. Bob Beach, D-Monongalia, and Douglas Facemire, D-Braxton, were absent.

The past two years, the intermediate court bill approved by the Senate hasn’t made it out of the House Judiciary Committee.

“The time has come,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan, said Monday. “The time has passed. It’s past time for this Legislature to exercise the authority conferred upon it in Article 8 of the (West Virginia) Constitution to create an intermediate court of appeals. This state needs one, and we’ve needed one for a long time.”

Trump said three separate committees since 1974 have evaluated the state’s judicial system and determined a need for an intermediate appeals court, between the county circuit courts and West Virginia Supreme Court.

Supporters of the bill said it would alleviate an overly burdened Supreme Court and allow justices to rule on bigger issues of law. They also said it would enhance the legal review process for West Virginians.

“It allows the Surpeme Court to focus on cases … constitutional issues they haven’t taken on before and really take a look at the big picture,” said Sen. Ryan Weld, R-Brooke.

Opponents said the court isn’t necessary and would be a waste of money, and that the Supreme Court’s caseload had decreased in recent years. They also said the push for the intermediate court was driven by outside interests and that the money could be better spent on things like drug courts, infrastructure and the state’s foster care system.

Senator Mike Romano, D-Harrison, called the vote on Monday déjà vu.

“Same demand for a court that’s unnecessary and unneeded,” Romano said. “We’re hearing we need one, but nobody’s been able to explain why we need one, and that’s pretty key. Sure — the age-old promise that if we create this court, businesses will come right over that mountain to establish right in West Virginia.

“It’s a bunch of bull, and we know it.”

The court would cost the state $7.6 million during the fiscal year that begins on July 1, according to the fiscal notes provided to the Senate. The fiscal notes were compiled by the state Supreme Court, the West Virginia Insurance Commission, and the state’s Public Consolidated Retirement Board.

The following year, the court is projected to cost $5.3 million, and it would take about $3.8 million annually to operate the court once it’s up and running.

Right now, the state Supreme Court issues opinions for every appeal made to the court from lower courts, including circuit courts and family courts. If the intermediate appeals court is voted into existence by legislators, the state Supreme Court would decide which appeals it would consider and which it would reject.

As the name of the court suggests, the intermediate appeals court would provide a level of appeals between the county-based circuit courts and the state’s highest court, the West Virginia Supreme Court.

The current version of the bill allows for two exceptions where someone could bypass the intermediate court and go straight to the state Supreme Court: if the appeal involves a question of “fundamental public importance” and if time is a factor in a given case and therefore requires immediate consideration by the court.

The intermediate court would only hear appeals in civil cases, conservatorship and guardianship cases, family court decisions, administrative agency decisions and the Workers’ Compensation Board of Review decisions.

The creation of the intermediate court would mean the elimination of the Workers Compensation Office of Judges.

That means Workers Compensation reviews would go through the Workers Compensation Board of Review, and any appeals of the board’s decisions would be heard by judges with the intermediate court.

The intermediate court would be a two-district court, a 27-county northern district, and a 28-county southern district.

Each district would have a panel of three judges, who would serve 10-year terms on the court. The judiciary committee on Monday amended the bill to provide those judges be elected during the regular nonpartisan judicial elections during the primary election in a given election year.

Initially, the governor would appoint three judges with staggered terms, and the first election for the intermediate court would take place during the May 2022 primary.

'This program really works:' Six celebrate success at drug court graduation

HUNTINGTON — It was an emotional day for 25-year-old Huntington resident Destiny Bostrom, who was recognized Monday afternoon for completing Cabell County Drug Court.

“This is absolutely amazing; this is honestly the only thing I have ever graduated in my life,” said Bostrom, who recently celebrated 13 months sober. “My life now makes me realize that I will never go back to what I was, and how proud people are of me, and the way people view me now versus when they did before is a complete 180.”

Bostrom is one of six members of drug court who were recognized at the Cabell County Courthouse for completing the program. The others also shared how the program has helped them change the course of their lives.

Cabell County Circuit Court Judge Greg Howard, who supervises the Cabell County Adult Drug Court, sees the results from his perspective. He noted that the graduation ceremony is encouraging to those who work with the participants.

“We get to see folks like this who came in kind of rough, struggling in addiction, had their own set of issues,” Howard said. “Then we get to see this polished product that is coming out the other end of drug court.”

Drug court is an intensive addiction treatment program used as an alternative to jail time for those who qualify and are willing to participate. It requires at least a year of random drug screenings, group and individual therapy sessions, weekly court hearings, regular employment and overall lifestyle changes.

All of the graduates had their own takes on what allowed them to succeed and the gratitude they felt for progressing through the program.

Gaduate Cassandra Wilson cited her daughter and the rest of her family for the support she received throughout the drug court process.

“This program really works, and I want to thank the whole drug court team. I don’t think I’d be here today if I didn’t go to jail,” Wilson said. “I’m just glad that I actually am here today.”

Multiple Huntington police officers attended the ceremony, and graduate J.J. Scarberry thanked them for treating him with respect when he was at his lowest point.

“I want to thank my arresting officers, because they put up with a lot with me and never once treated me like I was beneath or like I was a horrible person,” Scarberry said. “They actually helped, believe it or not. It opened my eyes that somebody that didn’t even know me believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself.

“This program is awesome, it changed my life for the better.”

Graduate Matthew Smith said drug court helped him reach his potential and get away from a life of substance use and prison time.

“I’m in a better place today than I’ve been in a long, long time, and for that I’m just thankful,” he said.

Some graduates offered a piece of advice for new drug court participants in attendance, as well.

“I didn’t want to be here, this was the last place I wanted to be, and I didn’t want to go through this, but sometimes it’s not always want you want, you get what you need,” Jeremiah Gaither said. “What I would say to the newcomers in this program is just wake up every day and challenge yourself and take a chance to change.”

For graduate Dustin McClung, drug court gave him a fresh start after more than 10 years of struggling with substance abuse.

“I came into this program and I was completely and totally hopeless,” McClung said. “Drug court actually changed that. I have a utility bill for the first time in my life in my own name, I pay my own rent and I’ve never done that, I always relied on my family and other people. This has all been such a humbling experience for me.”

Cabell County Drug Court is the largest in the state, Howard said, with anywhere between 55-60 people at any given time.

“It’s a pretty massive machine,” he said, “and it works really well.”

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WV's school board set for final votes on charter school, social studies requirements. And it needs to find a new superintendent.

CHARLESTON — West Virginia Board of Education members are set Wednesday to approve their first regulations for West Virginia’s first charter schools.

Charter schools are publicly funded but run by private organizations — possibly including companies hired by the schools.

What freedoms and restrictions the state Department of Education will ultimately recommend Wednesday to the state school board wasn’t clear by press time Monday. The education department still hadn’t published its final proposals.

“We received a significant number of responses to the charter schools policy during the comment period,” said Christy Day, a communications coordinator for the department. “The policy will be available prior to the board’s action on it in adherence to all open meeting laws.”

Also at Wednesday’s meeting — 10 a.m. in Room 353 of Building 6 of Charleston’s state Capitol Complex — the board is set for a final vote on proposed changes to Policy 2510.

It was through the department’s initially proposed changes to that central curriculum policy that it suggested reducing high school social studies standards.

Unlike with the charter schools issue, the department has revealed how it’s changing its recommendation to the board on this policy Wednesday. As state Schools Superintendent Steve Paine previously announced, the department is rescinding its previously proposed social studies standards reductions.

The board could, nonetheless, forge ahead with these social studies standards reductions Wednesday, despite the department abandoning the proposal.

The newly recommended Policy 2510 changes would also add a new definition of “self-contained special education classroom.” This may have implications for which classes are required to have cameras recording them.

Also, the board has a broadly worded agenda item Wednesday regarding employment of the state superintendent and a possible search for a new one.

Paine announced last week that he’s leaving June 30, or earlier if the board finds a replacement.

Regarding charter schools, the board voted in November to put the education department’s proposed charter school policy out for public comment.

Much of the policy copied requirements from last year’s omnibus education law (House Bill 206), which legalized charter schools. But while that law was silent on whether online charter schools would be allowed, the initially proposed charter school policy would’ve banned full-time virtual charter schools.

The agenda for Wednesday’s meeting says “124 distinct commenters provided a total of 510 comments.”

Generally, here’s how state school board policies, like the one regulating charter schools, are passed:

  • The education department presents the board a written proposal for a new policy, or for changes to an existing policy;
  • The board votes to publish that initial proposal for public comment, or votes to alter that proposal and then publish it;
  • The public does, or doesn’t, comment during the comment period;
  • The department changes, or doesn’t change, the proposal based on comments;
  • Lastly, the board gives its final vote on the department’s final proposal. The board can reject it, approve it, or change it one last time from what the department recommended and then approve it.