West Virginia’s appellate court crisis

Odd things are happening on the West Virginia Supreme Court.

On February 16, Chief Justice Allen Loughry was demoted and replaced as chief by Justice Margaret Workman. The unusual move, which followed a vote by the court’s other members, was apparently precipitated by a spending scandal. The court system spent more than $360,000 on Loughry’s office space since he joined the court in 2013, including a $32,000 couch. Loughry and the state court administrator pointed fingers at each other. The administrator has since been fired. In light of the crisis, the state senate voted to assume immediate legislative oversight of the judicial branch’s budget.

Shortly before these events transpired, Loughry also undertook a massive administrative reorganization of the West Virginia court system, consolidating 27 court divisions into only six. Several court administrators lost senior positions, and at least two supreme court justices strongly opposed the move. Justice Robin Davis told a reporter:

“I voted against the Court’s most recent Administrative Office reorganization for two critical and distinct reasons…. First, there is an appalling lack of clarity in the newly structured Court Services Division because there is no longer a distinct chain of command for each of the different types of courts comprising the judiciary.

“Collapsing magistrate courts, drug courts, family courts, and circuit courts under the same umbrella of supervision will severely hamper and drastically delay response time in answering critical questions and responding to the needs of these courts.

The “purported efficiency” of streamlining the division will in fact, actually restrict citizens’ access to justice and judicial resources, she stated.

As this crisis unfolds, legislators are separately debating whether to add an intermediate court of appeals to the state judiciary. West Virginia is one of only nine states without an intermediate appellate court, meaning that all appeals must be heard by the state supreme court, or not at all. Republicans in the legislature are pushing the change, with support from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

There are many advantages to adding an intermediate appellate court. For one, it would streamline the supreme court’s workload. It also carries the potential to lower the stakes of electing supreme court justices: if the supreme court were not the only appellate body in West Virginia, major donors would have less incentive to finance supreme court candidates. (And the historical corruption on the West Virginia Supreme Court as a direct result of election financing is well documented.) Of course, the same problem might just be manifested in the intermediate appellate court as well, but there is at least a chance for reform. Against these advantages is the cost: the tag for a new appellate court would be many millions of dollars.

It will be fascinating to see how these developments play out.  Can/will structural reform to the West Virginia courts bring an air of ethical reform as well?

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