The West Virginia Legislature met Sept. 23-25 during its regularly scheduled interim meetings to discuss upcoming topics to surely be considered in the 2020 regular legislative session. Although several committees met over the three-day period, the meeting of the Joint Judiciary Committee, of which I am a member, seemed to spark the most interest. The two-hour meeting was spread out over eight presenters regarding several topics. The presentations were labeled in part: The Intermediate Court of Appeals, The Judicial Branch’s Rule Making Authority, The Office of Administrative Hearings Driver’s License Suspension and Revocation Process, Judicial Compensation Recommendations, and Juveniles and Competency to Stand Trial.
From my perspective, the Intermediate Court of Appeals is unnecessary and a huge waste of taxpayer money. Proponents of the court relay that West Virginia is 1 of 10 states which do not have such a court. However, each state without an intermediate court host a population of less than 2 million people. Further, in the last 20 years, appeals of lower court cases to the West Virginia Supreme Court have declined nearly 70%. To add this additional layer of government to the state would cost taxpayers somewhere between $4 million and $9 million per year. Frankly, the money could be used to better serve the citizens of West Virginia if it were allocated to highways or fixing issues with the broken foster care system.
The Judicial Compensation Committee is tasked yearly with providing the Legislature with recommendations regarding pay increases, if any, for all judges in West Virginia. A review of the records indicate that West Virginia’s judicial branch has not received pay raises in the last several (more than 5) years. Regardless of the metric used to compare judicial pay, West Virginia judges rank near the bottom of every category. In an effort to combat low pay and to attract more qualified candidates, the Judicial Compensation Committee has suggested pay increases between 18% and 20% depending on the position. Should the increases pass through the legislature, judges in the state would rank somewhere in the middle of all other states with regard to compensation.
The Office of Administrative Hearings discussed the process currently in place which allows it to proceed with the revocation of driver’s licenses for persons charged with driving under the influence. Currently, when a person is arrested for driving under the influence, the person is arraigned and normally permitted to appear for a hearing in front of a magistrate judge at which some point guilt or innocence is determined. While the process is playing out in court, a person’s driver’s license may be suspended (unless a hearing is requested) by the DMV without the person ever being convicted or pleading guilty to the underlying charge. Opponents of the process argue that the process is inverted and some adjudication of guilt should occur before a person loses his or her driver’s license. Supporters of the current system seem to hold that a person can request a hearing and essentially stay the proceeding until the court case is resolved. However, even if a person is found not guilty, he or she may lose their driver’s license because of the different standards of proof for each hearing. The arguments concerning this will be interesting.
Lastly, one of the more interesting topics revolved around what should a court do when a juvenile is not competent to stand trial for a crime allegedly committed. In a recent court decision, the West Virginia Supreme Court opined that the Legislature has “rightly and vigorously” protected the adult’s fundamental right to be examined and treated for competency prior to standing for trial.
However, the court indicated the Legislature has not been as diligent with that process as it pertains to juveniles. The court then called upon the Legislature to “create a process to address the unique competency and mental health needs of juveniles facing delinquency proceedings, to protect those children who do not understand the adversarial process being brought against them by the State.” Given the directive of the Court, I am sure by the end of the regular session, the Legislature will implement a process to better deal with these unique situations.
I encourage you to reach out to me with issues that are important to you. I want to take your ideas and requests to Charleston. As your delegate, I look forward to updating my constituents periodically and to provide the most transparent information possible. Please feel free to contact me directly at Nathan.Brown@wvhouse.gov or by phone at 304-340-3126 or 304-235-5674. My door is always open.