CHARLESTON, W.Va. (Legal Newsline) - Former United States Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor may soon lead the way for a reform of West Virginia's judicial system.
Market Street Services, a consulting firm, suggested in a report that O'Connor be chair of a third-party team it recommends perform a comprehensive review of West Virginia's court system.
"When she was in Arizona, she was involved in the reform of their state courts," said J. Mac Holladay, founder and CEO of Market Street Services. "We thought she would give a certain credibility."
Holladay and Market Street Services were employed by Vision Shared to complete a competitive assessment of how West Virginia is performing in the economy and what can be done to improve the state's economy.
While Market Street Services found that West Virginia is making progress in some areas, there are five key areas it says the state needs to focus.
One of those five is judicial system reform, the assessment states.
"West Virginia's court structure and processes have earned the State a reputation for having an anti-competitive legal environment," Market Street Services wrote in its Work Plan for West Virginia, one section of the assessment.
"Many stakeholders associated with Vision Shared within the public sector and the private business community indicated that the State's legal climate serves as a major impediment to private sector investment and employment growth."
Some of the factors that have led to the state's anti-competitive atmosphere include its lack of an intermediate appellate court, record setting punitive damage awards and the method for appointing judges, Holladay's research concluded.
In addition to O'Connor, Market Street Services also suggested the use of the National Center for State Courts, an independent, non-profit organization created in 1971, to review the state's court system.
"The National Center for State Courts is a well respected organization trusted to provide independent reviews and realistic, candid recommendations for improving the efficacy of court systems," Market Street Services wrote in the assessment.
In its assessment, Market Street identified four areas West Virginia needs to focus on to ensure fairness, effectiveness and efficiency in the court.
West Virginia is one of only nine states without an intermediate appellate court, the report states. In most states, the Supreme Court acts as a last resort and is primarily charged with reviewing intermediate courts' decisions.
An intermediate court is important, Holladay contends.
"It simply has to do with the systems and people being able to know that things will be handled in a quick and judicious way," he said.
West Virginia and New Hampshire's Supreme Court of Appeals are the only two in the country not obligated to hear a filed appeal, the report points out as part of the second area.
And, West Virginia is one of seven states to elect judges through partisan elections, the report states in the third area.
In other states, non-partisan elections or appointment systems are used.
"It is a widely held belief that judges should not campaign on issues, but rather should make decisions about such issues when presented with them in court," the plan states. "In this regard, court systems in West Virginia and states that allow partisan elections are generally perceived to be less fair than those that employ nonpartisan elections or appointment systems."
West Virginia's constitution dictates the election method of judges and their term lengths, but the state's legislators could decide whether elections are partisan or nonpartisan, Market Street wrote in the report.
The fourth area needing to be studied is West Virginia's lack of a judicial nominating commission, according to the report.
Currently, 34 states use this commission to screen judicial candidates.
In its report, Market Street recommends West Virginia engage an independent, third-party, such as O'Connor and National Center for State Courts, to review the state's court system.
Based on those results, it suggests the Legislature convene to prepare and approve the appropriate legislation.
Market Services and Vision Shared presented the findings at a business summit earlier this month. Gov. Joe Manchin was out of town for the summit, and they presented the findings to him last week.
Manchin spokeswoman Lara Ramsburg said he appreciated the report noted the state has made progress.
But, she said, he also realizes there are challenges ahead.
"He's very interested in the new opportunities they proposed," Ramsburg said. "You're really talking about the creation of a new West Virginia."
Vision Shared is in the process of reviewing the recommendations.
"We have not yet come to any conclusions about how Mac Holladay's recommendations will affect our future work," said Julie Terry, president of Vision Shared. "We'll keep the public informed, of course."
No actions will be taken on the report until after Vision Shared's review, Ramsburg said.