The Times West Virginian

February 17, 2008

Courts of chancery

Can a forum dedicated to business law free up the state’s court system?

By Jessica Legge

FAIRMONT — The West Virginia House of Delegates recently passed a resolution to investigate what a business court could do for the state.

House Speaker Richard Thompson introduced House Concurrent Resolution 20, which the house adopted on Feb. 8. Next, the senate will review and vote on the resolution.

The resolution calls for a committee to conduct an interim study of a business court system and report back to the Legislature. Upon passage of the resolution, a legislative subcommittee will be assigned to the study. The Legislature will bring in interested parties to give their input, suggestions and concerns.

“We would hope that they would have legislation to introduce at the beginning of the 2009 legislative session,” Thompson said.

Lawmakers could create a law master system by statute to hear business matters. The legislature could also pass a constitutional amendment or choose to go with other alternatives.

Stacey Ruckle, communications director for the West Virginia House of Delegates, said the speaker has looked into “courts of chancery” in some other states, such as Delaware, which has a high number of Fortune 500 companies. She said Delaware and West Virginia have similar court systems.

A business court would deal mostly with disputes between companies, like franchise issues, and cases that should receive attention from someone with expertise in business law, Ruckle said.

“The basic idea behind this is to expedite the process for businesses so that disputes can be handled outside of the circuit court system,” she said.

Thompson said the circuit court has to handle all types of cases, and sometimes business lawsuits get lost among the others that are filed. Because business cases aren’t as pressing as child abuse or neglect cases or criminal cases, naturally they don’t receive attention as fast, he said.

A chancery court would allow more experienced individuals to deal with business disputes and provide quicker results, Thompson said. It would provide speedy resolution and more predictability.

“I think it would entice companies to come to West Virginia knowing that we have a court system in place that could handle their disputes,” he said.

Thompson has mentioned the proposal to the state Chamber of Commerce, West Virginia Trial Lawyers Association, state Manufacturers Association, and representatives of utility companies, Ruckle said.

“He’s received pretty positive feedback,” she said. “It’s just a way to make the state more business friendly and hopefully also free up the circuit court system.”

The West Virginia Chamber of Commerce is very interested in the concept and has met with the speaker and leading legislators about it, Chamber President Steve Roberts said.

“We think that there may really be the potential to go forward on this,” he said. “We do think that we need to know a little more about it and that we should have time to study the potential benefits of a level of courts that deals with issues related to business and commerce and trade, and that over time we may be very able to support that idea.”

According to the state Supreme Court, West Virginia has seen a large increase in the number of lawsuits filed, Roberts said. The courts are already very crowded and busy, and a separate court to handle business-related cases could lead to faster judicial outcomes and “speed up the administration of justice.”

“A court that is specially constituted to deal with complex matters related to contacts, copyrights (and) patents may very well be justified based on the complex nature of some of the business transactions that occur in West Virginia,” he said.

Marion County Delegate Linda Longstreth believes a business court would have a positive impact on the state. Having someone with extensive knowledge in business law would relieve the circuit courts of many cases. Persons would go to a specific court to resolve their business-related litigation.

She said the resolution study will help lawmakers decide whether a business court saves time and money. Through a study, the legislature could determine whether a business court would improve the court system and the business climate in West Virginia.

“I think we’re looking to see if we can get with this court a fair and consistent and timely dispute resolution,” Longstreth said.

E-mail Jessica Legge at jlegge@timeswv.com.