Appealing idea: W.Va.’s business court set to launch in Martinsburg

MARTINSBURG – An idea dating to 2008 that aims to make the Mountain State more business-friendly is becoming a reality.

Plans for West Virginia’s business court – a separate docket within the circuit court system, to be administered by Panhandle judge Christopher Wilkes – were announced in mid-September by state Supreme Court Justice Robin Jean Davis.

West Virginia’s new statewide business court will be housed in the Panhandle, inside the Berkeley County Judicial Center in Martinsburg.

Though the court is set to make its debut on Monday, high court spokeswoman Jennifer Bundy said that so far there aren’t any cases in the pipeline to be heard that day.

The new setup will focus on complex litigation between businesses as well as groundbreaking technology and commercial law cases. Complex tax appeals also will be eligible to be heard by the business court.

West Virginia’s business court will be housed inside the sprawling Berkeley County Judicial Center, with many of the parties involved taking part from their locations around West Virginia, connecting with the Martinsburg court via video conferencing.

It’s the latest in a series of specialized jurisdictions that allow for separate docket systems for criminal cases, civil cases, juvenile cases and cases involving abuse and neglect.

The idea for a business court was born from legislation proposed four years ago by Rick Thompson, a Wayne County Democrat who has served as Speaker of the House since early 2007.

“This sends a powerful message to the business community that this state is business friendly,” explained Thompson, who served in the House from 1981 to 1983 before returning to the Legislature in 2000. Last year, he ran for governor, losing in the primary to Gov. Earl Ray Thompson.

A separate business court will make it easier for circuit judges to manage cases that often are highly complex, said Thompson, who holds degrees from Marshall University and the West Virginia College of Law.

Thompson said he introduced the idea in West Virginia after he learned of Delaware’s “Court of Chancery,” a business court that dates back two centuries.

“Delaware’s Chancery Court is known nationally for efficient handling of commercial law and complex litigation between businesses,” Thompson said. “It is no coincidence that Delaware is home to a very large percentage of Fortune 500 companies.

“This is a concept I have been advocating for the past four years because I think a separate business docket focusing on resolving commercial litigation will make our state a much more welcoming environment for businesses.”

According to a news release sent out by Davis, the business court will relieve some of the burden from the state’s 70 circuit judges in 31 judicial circuits, who now must handle business cases along with other court matters.

Attorneys will be required to get approval from the state Supreme Court before cases may be transferred to the new business court, Davis said.

The goal will be something of a “rocket docket,” with cases resolved in just 10 months, officials say.

Steve Roberts, who is president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce in Charleston, has called the need for a separate business court “great” and has predicted the new court will stay busy.

In a news release, Davis said putting the business court in the Panhandle makes good sense. “The division has statewide jurisdiction, but it should be headquartered in an area of the state which is attracting business development,” Davis said. In terms of overall population, Berkeley County also has a certain clout, ranking second in the state behind Kanawha, Davis noted.

Besides Wilkes, three other judges have been appointed to business court: 11th Judicial Circuit Judge James Rowe and 22nd Judicial Circuit Judge Donald Cookman, both of whom will begin serving immediately, and also James Young Jr., a 24th Judicial Circuit judge who will join the business court starting Jan. 1.

Wilkes is a native of Annapolis, Md., who moved with his family to Berkeley County as a youth. After graduating from Musselman High, he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science at West Virginia University followed by law school at Ohio Northern University.

A Gerrardtown resident and father of two, Wilkes is one of five judges in the 23rd Circuit Court. First elected as a circuit court judge in 1992, he previously served as a municipal judge for Martinsburg and Ranson, starting in 1985.

Video conferencing technology will “make the state small in regard to hearings and conferences,” Wilkes explained in a news release sent out by the state Supreme Court. “We can hold virtual conferences throughout West Virginia [from Martinsburg] with no costs.”

Davis said four more active or senior-status circuit court judges eventually will be appointed by the Supreme Court to serve on the business court.

They will serve staggered seven-year terms and will not get additional pay for the work, Davis said.

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