Justices condemn sloppy appeals
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Some West Virginia lawyers need to stop submitting sloppy, rambling and frivolous appeals, the state Supreme Court warned on Monday.
The state's high court issued an administrative order lamenting cut-and-paste jobs, legal briefs without legal citations and appeals with only "skeletal" arguments.
"There's a lot of lawyers that file a lot of good briefs, but we're just getting numerous briefs that you can't make heads or tails out of," Chief Justice Menis Ketchum said in a telephone interview.
Ketchum and court clerk Rory Perry wrote the court's 16-point, 1,100-word order released Monday.
Lawyers who fail to do a better job in the future can receive a warning and also risk having their cases thrown out altogether.
Ketchum was an accomplished Huntington trial lawyer before he joined the court. He said the court's five justices are wasting time trying to figure out what point lawyers are trying to make. That, in turn, is hurting the attorneys' clients.
The goal of the order was to get lawyers to give justices a "fighting to chance to know what you're talking about," Ketchum said.
There are two main problems.
"There are numerous appeals being filed where there is no reasonable basis for the appeal - in other words, there's a lot of frivolous appeals being filed," Ketchum said.
The court's frustration about this boiled over in a Nov. 15 opinion.
The court said appeals should not be filed unless a lawyer "believes in good faith that error has been committed" by a lower court.
The opinion, written by Justice Thomas McHugh, said lawyers' use of "creative methods" to get the court to hear an appeal has increased since December 2010. That is when the court began to issue a full opinion or a short memorandum decision in every single case before it. But, McHugh warned, "nothing has changed as to the professional responsibility of lawyers to proceed only on meritorious issues."
The second problem the court tried to address Monday seems to be general sloppiness from some members of the bar.
"We're seeing a lot of appeals - numerous appeals - where there's no citation of legal authority for the argument and where there is just mere skeleton argument, where the argument is just thrown together haphazard and where the appendix record is not done properly," Ketchum said.
The justices are particularly keen on having a proper appendix in briefs. The index helps them and their clerks go through the often-lengthy court records to find key information on the case.
Some lawyers do this well, Ketchum said.
"But if it's all thrown in a box and we have to go through the whole box trying to figure out what they are doing, it wastes hours and hours and hours of time," Ketchum said.
Other problems include "cutting and pasting" of material from lower court filings that don't meet the standards used by the Supreme Court and "rambling" arguments.
At least a few of the court's concerns are directed specifically at lawyers who work on behalf of children. Among the concerns, these court-appointed legal guardians are doing "repeated late filings."
The court also expressed concern about briefs in abuse and neglect cases that do not give updated information on the children's status. The court also said some briefs are being filed without the appropriate effort to remove sensitive information.