The Judicial Reorganization Amendment was the most significant modern restructuring of the West Virginia judiciary. It was one of several amendments to the West Virginia constitution that took effect during the first two terms of Governor Arch Moore and together reorganized state government. Ratified by state voters on November 5, 1974, by a vote of 217,732 for and 127,393 against, the amendment brought major changes to West Virginia’s courts and county governments.
Prior to the amendment, counties were governed by administrative bodies that were referred to as ‘‘county courts.’’ Proponents of the amendment argued that the name was misleading because the so called county courts were actually executive administrators of county government, with only minor judicial functions. The Judicial Reorganization Amendment designated county courts with a more fitting title, county commissions.
The other major changes all dealt with the internal structure of West Virginia’s judicial system. Under the amendment, the judges of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals were renamed as justices, and the president of the Supreme Court was designated its chief justice.
More significantly, the amendment eliminated the longstanding justice of the peace system and replaced it with a modern magistrate court system. Magistrate courts were established in each county, responsible for adjudicating criminal misdemeanors as well as civil cases where the amount in controversy was no greater than $1,500. County magistrates were to be elected by the voters of each county. The amendment provided that all magistrate court verdicts were subject to review by the state’s circuit courts.
Circuit courts, in addition to having appellate review over all magistrate court decisions, were provided with original jurisdiction over felony criminal cases, civil cases where the amount totaled more than $1,500, and cases involving a juvenile. Circuit court verdicts were placed under the appellate control of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. The Judicial Reorganization Amendment also gave the state legislature the opportunity to create an intermediate court of appeals between the state’s circuit courts and the Supreme Court, to alleviate the Supreme Court’s large appellate case load; however the legislature has never exercised this option.
This Article was written by Benjamin Sullivan