The IAC is here. Whether the reader was against it or agreed to the need for an IAC, it’s a reality.
Senate Law 275 is now required by law with effect from July 1, 2022. The new law provides for three judges who serve the entire state with staggered ten-year terms. After January 1, 2022, the governor will make the first transition dates for part-time jobs up to the election of basically one and a half years, three and a half years and six and a half years. The voters then vote.
But the devil is in the details, as the old saying goes. Where will the IAC sit to hear arguments? Where are IAC complaints submitted? Will the IAC follow the current rules of the appointment process? How much IAC business is done remotely (via Teams, Zoom, etc)? Will the IAC judges be “racing drivers”?
How are domestic violence and appeal schedules adhered to in the cumbersome geography of 55 counties? Will per se (self-represented, not legal) parties have meaningful and equal access to the IAC and on the same level as trial lawyers who are “legal”?
How many support staff will the IAC have and where will they report to work? These are certainly practical, but important and obvious logistical considerations for the actual and actual implementation of an effective IAC.
Of much greater importance and of decisive importance for the integral and subsequent success of the IAC will be the qualifications of the three judges, which are just as indispensable for the hoped-for success of the IAC as its location, the access of the complainants and the day-to-day operations. In short, problems will plague the IAC from the start (bad word in 2020).
No part of the creation and functioning of the IAC is as critical as the fact that all 47 appeals from the 47 family court judges presiding in 55 West Virginia counties have been referred directly to the IAC for over 20 years.
However, the embryonic IAC law neglects and does not mandate the qualifications of the three judges who also have to deal with workers’ compensation, civil complaints and administrative cases.
What does that mean for the divorced minimum wage worker who queues at Sheetz for her simple black coffee? Why should this be a concern of the retired grandparent and their access to their little granddaughter? How will this delay a change in child benefit for a single mother in need?
Statistics, dry as they are, shed strong light on this problem. Baseline data found on the West Virginia Supreme Court website, Quick Reference Facts, shows 39 domestic violence and family appeals (divorce, alimony, alimony, custody, etc.) appeals to the West Virginia Supreme Court in 2020 were lodged on 27 such appeals in 2019 or around 31%.
Now compare those numbers to the number of appeals filed by the West Virginia family courts in West Virginia in 2020 that cannot be reviewed by the IAC until after July 1, 2022.
According to the West Virginia Supreme Court statistical database dated May 13, 2021, 338 such appeals have been filed against domestic violence and family members in 55 counties. This means that whatever trends remain at current levels, an IAC with two LESS judges than the Supreme Court and an indefinite number of support staff and no space to hang their collective robes will struggle with almost ten times more in any given year Family Court appeal processed as the Supreme Court in the same year!
Even if the foreboding prospect of an IAC dampens 50% of the family forces’ passion or zeal for appeals, the domestic violence and family law appeal will still be more than four times higher than what the Supreme Court handled in 2020.
Clear message: The inevitable and inevitable conclusion is that at least one of the three IAC judges must have a substantive and tangible background as a family law practitioner or a family court judge, or preferably both.
Ignoring this fact means surrendering the IAC as the first sacrifice of its own viscosity. Worse still, the second group of victims will be the families, children and grandparents who will suffer from the cumbersome and formidable learning curve for uninitiated judges in the domestic relationship cases that affect every Western Virgin. Euripides reminds us that “a bad beginning makes a bad end”.
Jim Douglas is a judge in Kanawha County Family Court.
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