Guest Essays, Opinion

Guest essay: A year in the W.Va. courts

by Evan Jenkins

As my year as chief justice of the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia ends, I thank those who contributed to the state court system’s progress in 2021. I would also like to highlight the ways in which access and service were improved for all who are served by the courts and the judicial system.

The West Virginia Constitution mandates that “the courts of this State shall be open” and that “justice shall be administered without … delay.” When COVID-19 became a pandemic in 2020, simply shutting our doors was not an option. In 2021, we continued to operate courts virtually but increasingly moved to in-person hearings as the year progressed. Our employees worked tirelessly to keep courts open.

As promised, we ensured this work was accomplished in a fiscally responsible manner. Our judicial branch budget request for the 2021-22 fiscal year was $139,400,000 — $2 million less than the budget for fiscal year 2017. Spending remains on track with our estimate for the first six months of the fiscal year.

In 2021, the Legislature enacted a law establishing an Intermediate Court of Appeals. The justices and staff spent much of the year developing the new court’s procedures and rules, as well as determining its staffing, facility and technology needs. That preparation will continue with the assistance of the three intermediate court judges appointed earlier this week: Thomas Scarr, Daniel Greear and Donald Nickerson Jr.

In May, the Supreme Court announced the addition of a civility pledge to the oath lawyers take when admitted to the practice of law. West Virginians are known for our friendliness, but the Court wanted to ensure judges and attorneys remain civil, even when divisive matters are decided in our courts. Legal professionals are leaders in our communities, and we should be models of appropriate behavior.

In November, the justices and other court personnel gathered again to proclaim November Juror Appreciation Month and to announce the release of a new jury orientation video and updated juror handbook, both of which are available on the West Virginia Judiciary website. Citizens in a civil society have two duties: to vote and to serve on a jury when called. As a court system, it is important we take time to thank those who serve.

Service is a theme of the judicial system’s work. The importance of providing access to victims seeking protection was magnified during the pandemic. In response to concerns, in August 2021, the Supreme Court launched a pilot project to allow victims to file petitions for domestic violence protective orders and personal safety orders without going to a courthouse. Victims can also attend follow-up hearings virtually from specific advocacy offices, so they do not have to be in the same room with their alleged assailants. The system is now operational in Cabell, Jefferson, Kanawha and Ohio counties, and it is expected to expand in 2022.

Family Treatment Courts marked their two-year anniversary in October 2021 and are serving participants in 11 counties. West Virginia also has 29 Adult Drug Courts covering 46 counties and 17 Juvenile Drug Courts covering 18 counties. Nine counties have Veterans Treatment Courts within their Adult Drug Courts.

In addition, the Juvenile Justice Commission celebrated its 10th year. The commission was created out of tragedy, and its initial purpose was to examine the Division of Juvenile Services’ operations and programs. The commission now reviews facilities and programs operated or contracted by the Bureau of Juvenile Services and the Department of Health and Human Resources, looking for strengths, challenges and gaps in West Virginia’s juvenile justice processes. As the commission enters its second decade, it will continue to help West Virginia’s children succeed.

It has been a unique honor and privilege to serve as chief justice in 2021. I know incoming Chief Justice John Hutchison shares that sentiment. We, along with Justices Beth Walker, Tim Armstead and Bill Wooton, will continue to work to move the state’s justice system forward.

Evan Jenkins was appointed to the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia by Gov. Justice in 2018. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2014 to 2018.