The Supreme Court of Appeals is West Virginia’s highest court and court of last resort. West Virginia is one of only 11 states with a single appellate court. The Supreme Court of Appeals is the busiest appellate court of its type in the United States.
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.
There are two terms of the Supreme Court of Appeals each year, from January to July and September to December. 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.
The five justices are elected in partisan elections to 12-year terms. The position of chief justice is a rotating one-year position. The governor appoints justices to fill vacancies until the next election.
Democrats have dominated the membership of the modern court. Since the 1932 election, only eight Republicans have gained seats. Seven of them were appointed by Republican governors to fill vacancies. Six of these served for less than two years until Democrats won their seats in the next election, and another 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. 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 2010 there have been 75 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. In 2010, the court was composed of Chief Justice Robin Davis, and Workman, Benjamin, Menis Ketchum and Thomas McHugh. Justice McHugh, who had previously served on the court, was appointed in April 2009 to fill the seat of Justice Joseph P. Albright, who died March 20, 2009.
The Supreme Court is housed on the 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 October 26, 2010
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.