Hellhole report sparks debate in W.Va.

John O'Brien Dec. 15, 2009, 8:00am



CHARLESTON, W.Va. (Legal Newsline) - As usual, West Virginia's place in the annual "Judicial Hellholes" report released Tuesday by the American Tort Reform Foundation was met with widely differing reactions.

The state's trial lawyer group sharply criticized the report, which places the state No. 2, while a civil justice reform group commended it and a spokesman for Gov. Joe Manchin expressed satisfaction with remarks made about Manchin in the report.

West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse also noted that the report praises Manchin's creation of the Independent Commission on Judicial Reform that featured former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

"The message couldn't be clearer -- now is the time to finally enact meaningful judicial reforms," CALA executive director Richie Heath said.

West Virginia has frequently been named a Judicial Hellhole since the ATRF began releasing the report in 2002. Last year, it was ranked first.

"Obviously, that isn't why we created this commission," said Matt Turner, Manchin spokesman. "But if others are taking notice of what we're trying to do, then that is good."

As to why the commission was created, Turner said, "Whether it was founded or unfounded, there was a perception of bias regarding West Virginia's courts. It was time to look at the structure of our court system.

"The governor stands by the commission's findings, and we look forward to working with the Judiciary and the Legislature on its findings."

One of the ATRF's reasons for the ranking is litigants have no intermediate court of appeals. The commission also recommended exploring the possibility of a business court.

"(W)hile the creation of an intermediate court of appeals, and corresponding right of appeal, will not solve all of the state's problems, it is clearly an important first step towards ensuring adequate review of legal errors in our state," Heath said.

The West Virginia Association for Justice, formerly the West Virginia Trial Lawyers Association, called the report inaccurate.

"This report is not a legitimate analysis of West Virginia's courts or our business climate. It's a humbug, a piece of propaganda released by the American Tort Reform Association-a front group for big money corporate special interests," said Timothy C. Bailey, president of WVAJ.

"ATRA was created expressly for the purpose of lobbying for immunity when corporations break the law. It is continuing its unrelenting attack on West Virginia and our civil justice system because our courts are the one place where these corporate wrongdoers can still be held accountable for their negligence and misconduct."

The report says state judges favor in-state plaintiffs in lawsuits against out-of-state defendants because in-state plaintiffs are the ones who vote for judges.

"The politics of our current judicial selection process has given the appearance that justice is for sale in West Virginia," Heath said. " By moving towards a system of non-partisan elections, we can take some of the politics out of our state courts while also preserving the right of West Virginians to elect their judges."

From Legal Newsline: Reach John O'Brien by e-mail at jobrienwv@gmail.com.

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