West Virginia, like all the states, has separate state and federal court systems. State courts process more than 98 percent of all litigation. The matters decided by state courts interpret and develop the laws that address the daily concerns of citizens.
The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals is the state’s only appellate court; it makes the final judicial determination in all questions of state law. The five justices on the court serve 12-year terms; each year, they elect one of their number to be chief justice. Like all state judges in West Virginia, the Supreme Court justices are chosen in partisan elections.
The state system has two types of trial courts: circuit courts, which are general jurisdiction trial courts; and magistrate courts, which are limited jurisdiction trial courts. Most important cases of law begin and end in circuit court. The legislature determines the number of judicial circuits and the number of judges in each circuit. There are 31 circuits; some circuits include several counties, but 16 circuits encompass only one county. The number of judges in a circuit ranges from one to seven. Circuit judges have eight-year terms.
Family law masters conduct hearings in cases involving divorce and child custody, visitation, and support. Mental hygiene commissioners preside over hearings on involuntary hospitalization, guardianship, and conservatorship. These officials then recommend how the court should dispose of such cases. A magistrate court is located in each county to litigate minor civil cases and misdemeanor criminal cases. Based on its population, a county may have from two to 10 magistrate judges. They serve four-year terms and may be non-lawyers. Decisions in magistrate court may be appealed to circuit court, where an entirely new trial is conducted. Cities and towns may establish municipal courts. They are administered locally and are limited to the enforcement of city ordinances. The 122 municipal judges are chosen in elections or by appointment.
Every state has at least one U.S. District Court within its boundaries, and West Virginia has two. The Southern District is centered in Charleston and also holds court in Beckley, Bluefield, Huntington, Parkersburg, and Lewisburg. The Northern District, centered in Elkins, also holds court in Clarksburg, Martinsburg, and Wheeling. These courts address questions of federal law and federal crimes arising in West Virginia. They may also hear state civil cases arising in West Virginia between a citizen of West Virginia and a citizen of another state. Appeals of decisions of the U.S. District Courts in West Virginia are made to the fourth circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals, which sits in Richmond. Federal district judges serve life terms. The president appoints them with the advice and consent of the U.S. Senate. These judges are West Virginians, who were suggested to the president by the state’s U.S. senators and governor. Each district court also has a bankruptcy court attached to it.
Written by Chuck Smith
Brisbin, Richard A. Jr. The West Virginia Judiciary. West Virginia's State Government: The Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches. Morgantown: West Virginia University Institute for Public Affairs, 1993.