WV legislative session dealt with several legal industry bills - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

WV legislative session dealt with several legal industry bills

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Although it may not have been the biggest legislative session for the legal field, there were still several bills that will have an effect in the legal arena.    

One of the biggest bills in the legal field— House Bill 2805 — made permanent the state Supreme Court's public finance project.

State Supreme Court Justice Allen Loughry was the pilot project's only participant last year, and despite a court challenge to how the funding was allocated, Loughry was elected.

Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, explained the bill eliminated the matching funds provision, which was at issue in the legal disputes during last year's election.

"I was happy to see that pass," Palumbo said. "The original thought was to take a look at it in the next year in the next election to see how it works before making it permanent. It's good to keep it going for sure."

The bill increased the amounts that qualified candidates could receive in the primary and general elections.

Another major legal bill that completed legislation was Senate Bill 371, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's prison overcrowding and justice reinvestment bill.

The basics of the bill include preliminary health screens and psychological evaluations for anyone committed to the custody of the Division of Corrections and mandatory supervision once a person is released as well as rehabilitation treatment for inmates with substance abuse issues.

The bill would mandate one year of supervised release for violent inmates, deducting one year of their good time and mandate 180 days of supervised release for nonviolent inmates.

It also would exempt parole officers from prohibitions against carrying concealed weapons, require probation officers to perform random drug and alcohol tests of people under their supervision, authorize the state Supreme Court to adopt a standardized risk and needs assessment for probation officers to use, allow the state Supreme Court to adopt a standardized pretrial screening instrument for the Regional Jail authority to use.

In a released statement, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said the bill will "better address the substance abuse and recidivism problem within our prison population."

Magistrate pay also was a big talker during the legislative session.

House Bill 2434 would have increased the salaries of 38 magistrates throughout the state. The bill made it out of the House but died in the Senate.

In the Senate, a different bill, Senate Bill 378, took aim at the pay cuts magistrates and their top staffers received in January in Lewis, McDowell, Wetzel and Wyoming counties because of the drop in population in those counties.

The Senate's bill did away with the two-tier pay system and adjusted the population line for the pay scale, which also would raise the pay in Barbour and Roane counties. That bill passed the full Senate but flopped in the House.

Lawmakers addressed magistrate pay in their special session and this time it passed.

Senate Bill 1003 called for a study by the National Center of State Courts to look at magistrate caseload, eliminate the two-tier pay scale by January 2017 and would increase the pay for magistrates and staff in Lewis, McDowell, Wetzel and Wyoming counties. Pay was reduced in these counties at the start of this calendar year because of a decrease in population.

Salaries currently are determined by population. Barbour and Roane counties also will benefit from that change.

The bill also would increase the pay of all the magistrates at the lower pay level until Jan. 1, 2017, which would be after the next election.

Another bill that passed in the special session was Senate Bill 1005, which deals with how lawsuit settlement monies are managed.

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey praised its passage, saying it "marks an important step" for the state.

"I campaigned on a platform of returning lawsuit settlement monies back to the Legislature and the taxpayers, and the promises made many months ago have been kept," Morrisey said. "This bill and its approval by members of the Legislature shows this is a new day in the Attorney General's Office."

The bill made a supplemental appropriation from the civil contingent fund and consumer protection fun, returning millions of dollars in state settlement money to the general revenue fund.

Morrisey said the bill expires $7.459 million of unencumbered funds in his office's consumer protection recovery fund to the state's general revenue fund.

The bill also directs $3.5 million of the Department of Health and Human Resource's consolidated medical service fund for behavioral health programs, $4.6 million to the Higher Education Policy Commission and $500,000 to the Department of Commerce.

Additionally, the last $1.859 million will go to Morrisey's office for personnel, technology improvements and operating expenses, his office stated.

And of course, there were several legal bills that did not make it through.  

Senate Bill 582, which would have implemented terms of the Uniform Arbitration Act, didn't make it out of House committees.

The bill would provide updates to the process and serve as a guideline for how arbitration should succeed.  Counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee said in the March 28 meeting that the original act did not address many issues that arise in modern arbitration and state statute did not provide guidance for many issues.

"I'm not sure why this didn't gain traction," he said. "I'm a little disappointed that it didn't. 

Palumbo explained 35 states have adopted a similar bill, which sets forth procedures and protocols for parties when they voluntarily engage in arbitration.

"This is not something that has pushed people into or out of arbitration," Palumbo said, noting West Virginia's arbitration statute hasn't been updated in a few decades.

House Bill 3012, which called for nonpartisan justice elections, did not make it out of the House. Another bill, House Bill 3130, which would create an intermediate court of appeals, also died in committee.

So what may be up for discussion in the interim session?

Palumbo said members of the Legislature may study House Concurrent Resolution 44, which calls for a year-long study of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals rules of appellate procedure to see if those rules are working and if they are providing a fair and efficient appeals process.

The study would determine if legislators needed to take more action such as creating an intermediate court.

Also, the goal of the resolution is to settle once and for all whether West Virginia really is a tort hell. Many members cited the American Tort Reform Association's Judicial Hellhole List, which consistently has consistently ranked the Mountain State near the top.

The resolution did not make it out of Senate judiciary.