Number of Supreme Court written decisions up dramatically
Changes to the state's appellate procedures in 2010 have led to exponential growth in the number of written decisions issued by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.
The court is on track to issue more than 1,300 merits decisions by the end of 2013, compared to just 162 decisions released in 2010.
And while the Supreme Court refused 1,917 appeals in 2010, it has not refused a single appeal in the last two years.
Speaking to lawmakers at an interim meeting on Monday, Supreme Court clerk Rory Perry said the Supreme Court will never again refuse an appeal, as long as current rules are in place.
Supreme Court justices agreed in 2010 to change their procedures and release a written explanation each time they reject an appeal without a hearing. The court previously denied requests without any explanation.
"I think it's going to make the public understand more clearly the process that we go through," Justice Robin Davis told the Associated Press at the time.
The changes were not without opponents, however. Lawyers and interest groups claimed the new rules would increase work for attorneys, make it more difficult for poor people to file appeals and have little effect on reducing the Supreme Court's docket.
Opponents instead suggested the state establish an intermediate appeals court, which would sit between the state Supreme Court and the county circuit courts.
Three years later, Perry said most feedback on the new rules has been positive.
"We believe that this system is thorough, it's fair, it takes into account the needs of due process for appeals," he said. "This is a court that was invested in making this change, that believes in the system, has gotten used to it."
Perry said the system also reduces delay in issuing opinions and increases the court's transparency to the public, since each appeal receives a written reply. Each decision issued by the court is posted on its website, as well as in legal databases.
Appeals have declined overall since 2010, falling from 1,668 that year to 1,524 in 2012. Perry projects the state Supreme Court will see 1,290 appeals by the end of this year.
He said the new rules have not had an effect on the number of appeals coming in, but legislative reforms have led to a decrease in the number of medical malpractice lawsuits and workers' compensation claims.
In 1999, workers' compensation claims made up 65 percent of the state Supreme Court's caseload. Last year, worker's comp cases made up 35 percent of the court's docket.
Abuse and neglect cases took up 15 percent of the court's caseload, with 195 cases. There were 223 torts, contracts and real property appeals, making up 17 percent of the Supreme Court's docket. There were 166 criminal felony cases and nine criminal misdemeanor cases, making up around 14 percent of the caseload.
The rest of the court's time was spent on civil cases, domestic violence, administrative and family court cases.
Prior to 2010, the high court's appellate rules had not been revised for more than 35 years.
Perry said the state had a "sloppy" appellate process, where lawyers were allowed to submit appeals simply by passing all documents from lower courts' rulings up to the state Supreme Court.
"We basically let the lawyers decide which cases were appropriate for oral argument," he said.
Now, attorneys must only submit information relevant to their clients' Supreme Court appeal.
Perry said the court experienced a slight backlog of cases after implementing the new rules but are now have just as many cases going out as there are coming in.
"It's taken a number of years for us to catch up with ourselves," he said.