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Chief Justice Evan Jenkins discusses intermediate court, post-impeachment reform during Morgantown visit

MORGANTOWN — State Supreme Court Chief Justice Evan Jenkins spoke with The Dominion Post last week about the new intermediate appeals court and rebuilding the court’s reputation after the 2018 impeachment.

Jenkins was visiting Morgantown on business.

Jenkins started his political career with election to the House of Delegates in 1994. He served three terms there and three terms in the state Senate, and ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2014, serving two terms there.

He was appointed to the state Supreme Court in August 2018 to fill a post-impeachment seat and elected to complete former Justice Robin Davis’ unexpired term that November. The term runs through 2024.

Along the way, his day jobs included executive director of the West Virginia State Medical Association, general counsel of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, and teaching business law at Marshall University.

Some people focus on a particular job or position, he said. But when it comes to the public that really does not apply. During his time in the state Senate he got frustrated with representation in Congress and the direction of Washington. “I went there to try to solve a problem.

“Was this a dream position for me, a goal? No,” he said. “But when we had the troubles in our Supreme Court … we had a crisis … These last two, three years have been about trying to restore the integrity of the court and build the public’s confidence. My life politically seems to fall into going and addressing problems and trying to hunt for a solution.”

Post-impeachment court

After the impeachment, Jenkins and new Justices Tim Armstead and John Hutchison joined sitting Justices Beth Walker and Margaret Workman on the court. All five were on board to committing to fixing the problems, he said.

Part of the impeachment concerned misspent money and one of their first actions was to return $10 million in carryover funds to the Legislature for reappropriation, he said. They put in place purchasing, travel, personnel, procurement and inventory policies. And they endorsed the constitutional amendment to put the court’s budget under legislative oversight, which passed in November 2018.

“The camaraderie of the justices is better than anybody can remember,” he said. “We really do like each other and respect each other … I feel like I have four close friends on the Supreme Court.”

Jenkins talked about what he termed the consequential nature of the job. Now, more than 40% of the appeals they hear are abuse and neglect cases, a substantial increase from 10-20 years ago.

“On the court every day we are making decisions that impact real peoples’ lives and can be setting the precedent for all of West Virginia … To have five justices sitting in a room with the doors closed deciding the most consequential, important issues of our day.”

They decide, for instance, whether a 13-year-old girl will go home with her parents. They don’t hold press conferences to announce their rulings. “We’re there below the radar screen making really important decisions.”

The state has a unified court system, Jenkins said, so the five also serve as a sort of board of directors overseeing all the courts, and 1,500 employees in 55 counties — including 300 probation officers who monitor 10,000 probationers.

A January 2020 post-audit of the efforts to put policies in place was overall positive. It said, “The legislative auditor commends the court for its quick actions to establish thorough and well-researched controls.”

The report offered one recommendation that the court agreed with: “The legislative auditor is concerned about the ambiguity with respect to their applicability to the justices. While it appears to be the intent and interpretation of the current justices of the court to include themselves within the scope of these policies, the court can significantly strengthen its system of internal controls by clearly establishing applicability to the justices in the same manner as they currently do with respect to circuit, family and magistrate court judicial officers.”

Intermediate appeals court

During the 2021 legislative session, after many years of failed efforts and stiff opposition from the GOP-led House of Delegates, the House and Senate approved a scaled-down House version of a new intermediate appeals court. It will feature a single three-judge panel serving the entire state, at about half the cost of previous proposals: $3.6 million to start, with an annual cost thereafter of $2.1 million.

Perennial objections had been the cost (opponents still didn’t care for the cheaper version); the lack of a need for it given the court’s recent lighter workload and a decision rendered for every appeal; the additional delay in justice; and the possibility of the extra step favoring deep corporate pockets over everyday mom-and-pop businesses.

Jenkins said the court never took a position, but offered information. “The issues were battled legislatively. The legislative battle is now over and it is a reality.” It’s now up to the court to develop and implement it.

“It is a blank slate,” said. But 41 states have one. “We have some great examples we can look at of the do’s and don’ts.” During COVID, they invested in technology platforms for remote procedures and should continue to use that.

Jenkins said he prefers the new court to not have a single seat in Charleston. The Legislature made it clear the court should be mobile, transparent and accessible, and he wants to make sure litigants in the Eastern Panhandle can have the cases heard close to home.

“I hope we can see cases flow faster. I hope we can keep costs down. I hope we can manage the docket. Our guide star here is making sure that justice is administered fairly and without bias. That’s what the public depends on,” he said.

They’ve let the Legislature know they’ll need about 30 new employees to get the court up and running, he said. The start date is July 1, 2022. “We have 13 months to get this right.”

They’ve already started looking at policies and rules of the court, so that if any legislative tweaks are needed, the court can propose those during the 2022 session.

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