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The Supreme Court of Appeals, commonly known as the Supreme Court, is West Virginia’s highest court and court of last resort. West Virginia is one of only 9 states with a single appellate court.

The Supreme Court hears appeals of decisions over matters decided in the state circuit courts, including criminal convictions affirmed by the circuit courts on appeal from magistrate court, and appeals from administrative agencies. The court also hears appeals of domestic relations decisions decided in family court if both parties agree that they will not appeal directly to the circuit court. The court decides which appeals it will hear, rejecting others and thereby letting the lower court decision stand.

The justices also have extraordinary writ powers and original jurisdiction in proceedings of habeas corpus, mandamus, prohibition, and certiorari. They also interpret the laws and constitutions of West Virginia and the United States.

Arguments before the Supreme Court are presented by attorneys. There are no witnesses, juries, or testimony. After justices have heard oral arguments and reviewed attorneys’ written materials, known as briefs, they issue written decisions, or opinions. These opinions may be appealed only to the U.S. Supreme Court and only if federal law is involved. Otherwise, decisions of the West Virginia Supreme Court are final.

There are two terms of the Supreme Court of Appeals each year, beginning the second Tuesday in January and the first Wednesday in September. At other times, the justices consider the emergency business that comes before the court. The court also has administrative and regulatory responsibilities over the judicial branch of state government. The court sits in Charleston, but may travel to other locations.

During the state’s first 10 years, Supreme Court proceedings were held solely at the state capital in Wheeling or Charleston. At that time, the court held three sessions per year, and in 1873, the legislature decided to rotate the court’s sessions among Charleston, Wheeling, and Charles Town. The Supreme Court met for the first time in Charles Town on August 6, 1873. In days of poor transportation, rotating the court allowed more people to attend the proceedings. The rotation system remained in place until 1912, when the Supreme Court was established permanently in Charleston.

The five justices are elected in nonpartisan elections to 12-year terms. The position of chief justice, traditionally a rotating one-year position, has in recent practice changed to the election of the chief justice to multiyear terms by vote of the justices. In the case of vacancies on the court, the governor appoints justices to fill the vacancies until the next election.

Justices were elected by partisan vote for most of the court’s history, and Democrats have dominated the membership of the modern court. Since the 1932 election, only 11 Republicans have gained seats. Eight of them were appointed by Republican governors to fill vacancies. Seven of these served for less than two years until Democrats won their seats in the next election, and one, Charles Haden II, resigned to accept a federal appointment. Republican Brent Benjamin broke the Democratic trend in 2004, ousting Justice Warren McGraw with the aid of heavy campaign spending.

Until 2004, serious contests for seats on the court, when they occurred, were in the Democratic primary. Election in the general election was still required, but Democrats always won due to their heavy majority among West Virginia voters. In 1988, Margaret Workman narrowly defeated Justice Darrell McGraw in the primary and became the first woman justice and the first woman elected to statewide office in West Virginia. Justice Workman left the bench in 1999 but ran again in 2008 and won another 12-year term on the court.

For the period of the 1960s and 1970s, political scientists ranked West Virginia’s court among the 12 least activist courts as regards the making of public policy. In 1976, this changed with the election of liberal justices Sam Harshbarger, Darrell McGraw, and Thomas Miller. Subsequently, the court increasingly favored claimants in decisions about workers’ compensation and tort law. The court also moved from a docket overwhelmingly dominated by private law cases to deciding numerous high-profile public law cases.

Some court decisions instituted major changes in state policies regarding the prison system (Crain v. Bordenkircher, 1986, 1988, 1989, and 1990); the financing of public schools (Pauley v. Kelly, 1979, and State ex rel. Board of Education v. Rockefeller, 1981); and property tax assessment and appraisal methods (Killen v. Logan County, 1982). In 1989, the court required the legislature to redesign the system for compensating court-appointed attorneys (Jewell v. Manard).

The court also developed new common law doctrines. In tort claims, the court rejected the doctrine of contributory negligence that prohibited injured parties from any recovery in accidents that they themselves even partially caused (Bradley v. Appalachian Power Co., 1979). In product liability suits, the court allowed recovery from damages caused by all kinds of products, not only those called inherently dangerous in the previous tort law (Morningstar v. Black and Decker, 1979). The 1978 Mandolidis case expanded an injured worker’s right to sue an employer. The court also narrowed common law definition of employment at the will of the employer in ways that constrained the ability to fire workers (Cook v. Heck’s, 1986).

As of 2017 there have been 76 justices of the Supreme Court of Appeals. In 1863, the court sat in Wheeling, the capital at the time, and consisted of three judges. Its membership was increased to four with the ratification of the current West Virginia constitution in 1872. A 1902 constitutional amendment increased the number to the present five. The longest single period of service was that of the late Frank C. Haymond of Marion County, who served as a justice for nearly 27 years.

New legislation changed the election of Supreme Court justices from a partisan to nonpartisan basis. The first nonpartisan election was held at the time of the spring primary elections in May 2016. Beth Walker was elected to the court, defeating Justice Benjamin, former Justice Darrell McGraw and other candidates. With Walker’s election, 2017 is the first time in the state’s history that women will hold a majority of seats on the court, being composed of Workman, Robin Davis, Walker, Menis Ketchum and Chief Justice Allen Loughry.

The Supreme Court is housed on the first, third and fourth floors of the state capitol’s east wing. The impressive court chambers are surrounded by marble Doric columns, crowned by a bronze-framed stained-glass skylight, and fitted with specially designed black walnut furniture. The capitol’s architect, Cass Gilbert, was so pleased with the room that, several years later, he designed nearly identical chambers for the U.S. Supreme Court building.

This Article was written by Chuck Smith

Last Revised on April 21, 2017

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Mooney, Christopher Z., et al. West Virginia's State Government: The Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches. Morgantown: West Virginia University Institute for Public Affairs, 1993.

Cite This Article

Smith, Chuck "Supreme Court of Appeals." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 21 April 2017. Web. 16 January 2018.


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