New W.Va. chief justice wants to cut budget

Lawrence Smith Jan. 27, 2012, 8:00am


CHARLESTON, W.Va. (Legal Newsline) - For the next year, Menis Ketchum has two objectives as chief justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court -- write opinions and cut the budget.

Ketchum's pronouncement was made during his visit to the House Finance Committee on Wednesday to members about the court's activities and budget. During his hour-long talk, Ketchum said "except for the pay raises you graciously gave us," the Court's budget will see no increase in fiscal year 2012-13.

Instead, as part of a broader initiative to help plug a projected $300 million hole in the state's budget due to Medicaid, Ketchum said he's looking for ways to trim the Court's $125 million budget. Though he did not provide specifics, the self-described skinflint from Wayne County said he plans to start with the mental hygiene system were the state is getting "financially raped."

"I'm stingy, and our budget just scares the heck out of me," Ketchum said.

According to Ketchum, West Virginia is the only state that assigns a guardian ad litem to each person committed to undergo a mental hygiene evaluation. By making the mental hygiene system more health- and less legal-based, Ketchum said estimates are the state could save around $3 million.

However, before any changes are implemented, Ketchum said the Court would take input from all interested parties, particularly the Legislature.

"We're not just going to throw a bill at you," he said.

During his year as chief justice, Ketchum, 68, says he has no plans to implement any special programs. Instead, he's content on doing what he was elected to do in 2008, hear cases and render decisions.

Ketchum took some time to brief the Committee on the Court's caseload. Though numbers were still not finalized for 2011, Ketchum provided a handout that showed appeals to the Court between 2007 and 2011 declined by 56 percent.

The reason for the decline, Ketchum said, was because the "workers' compensation reforms you passed in the mid-2000s are working."

The reduced caseload should not give the impression the Court isn't busy, Ketchum said. Because of new rules of appellate procedure it implemented in December 2010, every appeal gets a written decision.

Of the 678 appeals the Court considered last year, 578 received a memorandum decision. These, Ketchum said, are usually 4-12 pages in length that involve cases with recurring facts or simple issues of law.

Sixty percent of memorandum opinions involved workers' compensation or abuse and neglect cases, Ketchum said.

Another large percentage of cases that received memorandum opinions were criminal cases that were frivolous or bordered on being frivolous. Often these are cases in which defendants plead guilty, but challenged the judge's sentence.

Though a firm believer that every criminal defendant should be entitled to at least one omnibus habeas corpus petition, Ketchum said neither he nor the other justices should spend time writing a mini treatise on why the appeal was denied.

"If they don't like those memorandum opinions," Ketchum said, "they can stick it."

The Court could see a further reduction in its caseload after implementation of the business courts. The first draft of the new courts' rules will be made available for public comment Feb. 9.

Once they're functional, Ketchum said the courts will involve sitting circuit judges, and their staffs who've been provided specialized training in business law. They will only hear business-to-business cases, and not consumer-to-business cases like personal injury.

Though they will be stand alone, the business courts will operate out of existing courthouses in seven regions across the state.

Also, cases will be filed with the circuit clerk's office that has jurisdiction, who at the request of the plaintiff, would forward the case to the Supreme Court for assignment to the respective regional business court.

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