The Times West Virginian

In Today's TWV

January 6, 2008

‘Judicial hellhole’ label challenged

Chafin, trial lawyers group fighting back

SOUTH CHARLESTON — Changes in West Virginia’s business, property and income taxes would do more to grow the state’s economy than bowing to unsubstantiated claims about the state’s civil tort system being a “judicial hellhole,” Senate Majority Leader Truman Chafin believes.

“It’s the tax system, not necessarily the tort system,” said Chafin, D-Mingo, and a key member of the Senate Judiciary and Finance committees.

“When I came to the Senate in 1983, we were probably 13th or 14th nationally on the personal income tax list,” he said.

“Now, the income tax is the No. 1 revenue producer (for the state),” he said.

People are moving to states like Tennessee and Florida, which do not have personal income taxes, Chafin said.

Steve Roberts, president of the state Chamber of Commerce, said he personally “blanches” when he hears the “judicial hellhole” label applied to the state’s legal system in national rankings.

Chafin and Roberts appeared on a panel Friday to discuss whether the state’s legal climate hurts economic development. The “2008 Legislative Lookahead” forum in South Charleston was sponsored by the state Associated Press.

The legal climate is one of things that businesses take into account when they consider locating in the state, Roberts said.

The chamber is pushing for caps on punitive damages in this session of the Legislature, he said.

“Most other states have enacted limits on punitive damages,” he said. “West Virginia is out of step,” with the rest of the nation in that area and others, he said.

The chamber also would like to see the state adopt a non-partisan system of electing judges.

The state constitution calls for the election of judges, Roberts said.

What the chamber wants would not require a constitutional amendment, he said. Judges would simply not be able to run as members of any party, he indicated.

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