The West Virginia Supreme Court issued more than 1,300 written decisions on the merits of cases seeking a full appeal from the court. Just two years earlier, the court issued only 162 such opinions.
This is a remarkable turn of events that allows the court to grant a de facto right to appeal without creating an expensive intermediary court. Justices and their staff have the time to do all this because workers comp appeals no longer overwhelm them.
This appears to be another side benefit of privatizing workers compensation. This also reflects the electorate, which has selected higher quality judicial candidates in recent years.
In 2008, the court came under pressure to grant the automatic right to appeal after justices unanimously declined to hear an appeal of a $404 million judgment against NiSource and Chesapeake Energy and a $260 million judgment against Massey Energy.
In neither case did the justices give the companies any explanation for their rejection. That led to a call for granting an automatic right to appeal, which 48
other states grant.
However, justices rejected the idea of creating an
intermediary court or even having lawmakers impose such a right to appeal on the judiciary.
"Legislation strictly initiated by the most recent
jarring headlines rarely results in good law," Justice Robin Jean Davis said at the time.
Instead, justices re-wrote their rules and began stating their reasons for rejecting the appeal. Obviously, in the past, justices had given appeals careful consideration. They simply did not explain their reasons. Now they can, in part because the volume of workers comp claims plummeted.
In 1999, workers comp made up 65 percent of the court's caseload. Frivolous claims had turned the court into a workers comp appeals court.
Now, such cases still consume 35 percent of the caseload, but at least the scales of justice have turned to the point where justices have more time to consider civil and criminal appeals.
That the high court has done so without having to expand the judiciary spares taxpayers millions of dollars annually.