Judicial Budget Oversight Amendment Advances; Fate of Intermediate Court Bill Uncertain

After clearing the House Finance Committee earlier in the week, (SJR 3), which would amend the state constitution to give the Legislature oversight of the judiciary’s budget was taken up and passed by the House Judiciary Committee. However, unlike previous committees that have considered and discussed SJR 3, the Judiciary Committee scrutinized the proposed amendment and the practicality of language added by the Senate to address concerns about retaliation by the Legislature against the judiciary if the Court rules against the Legislature in a case.

As passed by the Senate the proposed constitutional amendment said that “the Legislature may not make any law that conditions the increase or decrease of [the budget of] the judiciary upon a particular ruling, order, or decision of a court of this state.” While this may have been well intentioned, the House Judiciary Committee recognized that in practice it did nothing to insulate the judiciary from politically motivated attacks, and that it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to challenge future cuts to the judiciary’s budget on such grounds unless the Legislature was explicit in its intentions.

As a result, instead of accepting the proposed amendment passed by the Senate, the Committee adopted an amendment proposed by Delegate Chad Lovejoy (D-Cabell) to include a procedural safeguard of requiring a super-majority (two-thirds) vote of the Legislature to reduce the judiciary’s budget by more than ten percent from the previous fiscal year.

Although a number of legislators have expressed concerns about this proposed take over of the judiciary’s budget, most are finding it difficult to challenge in light of the recent spending scandal involving, which has highlighted extravagant renovations to the private chambers of the Supreme Court justices. While some level is oversight is warrented in light of these revelations, the changes made by the House will help discourage retaliation and protect the balance of powers between the legislative and judicial branches should the proposed amendment be approved by the voters.

SJR 3 now goes to the House floor for a vote, while the fate of another proposal that could dramatically reshape the judicial system in West Virginia remains uncertain. SB 341 would establish an intermediate court of appeals between the level of circuit court and the state Supreme Court to hear civil appeals, appeals of workers’ compensation claims, abuse and neglect cases and some other administrative appeals. This bill must clear both the House Judiciary and Finance Committees before Wednesday, which is a heavy lift but still possible.

However, the judiciary’s current case load doesn’t justify the creation of a new court that could cost West Virginia up to $10 million per year, and would only drag out cases that would end up in the Supreme Court anyway, to the advantage of parties with greater financial resources.

The U.S. Chamber Institute of Legal Reform is perhaps the proposal’s biggest supporter. Why? To delay justice for West Virginia small businesses, consumers and workers.

Hopefully, we can delay this irresponsible proposal instead. Click here to tell your legislators that they should be doing what’s best for West Virginia instead of catering to out-of-state, millionaire CEOs. Tell them not to waste millions on an intermediate court we don’t need, and vote NO on SB 341.

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