W.Va. ranked 50th in legal climate

Once again, the debate over West Virginia’s rankings in the legal climate is raging, inspired by a fresh study performed for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce putting the state dead last.

Teresa Toriseva, head of the West Virginia Association for Justice, an organization of trial lawyers, ridiculed the Harris poll as “nothing more than a trumped-up public relations gimmick” advancing the political agenda of megabuck companies that commit crimes.

“This isn’t a valid analysis of our courts,” she said in a statement. “Very few of the attorneys who participate have ever stood before a West Virginia judge. These are in-house attorneys who are responding exactly the way the chamber tells them — and the results are exactly what the chamber expects them to be. It’s like polling West Virginia fans at Mountaineer Field on whether or not they want WVU to win the game.”

But Steve Cohen, a spokesman for Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, defended the poll and said it is in sync with similar ones that depict West Virginia as a poor place to do business from a legal standpoint.

“The latest survey is consistent with at least half a dozen surveys over the past several years telling the same story — West Virginia courts need reform,” Cohen said, alluding to studies by Forbes and Directorship magazines, the Pacific Research Institute, the Institute for Legal Reform and the American Tort Reform Foundation.

“It’s across the board. The reputation of the West Virginia court system is across the board — unfavorable to creating jobs.”

Toriseva referred to a Forbes report depicting Morgantown as among the Top Ten “best small places” for business and careers.

“The state does have some bright spots, no doubt about it, but the overall picture for West Virginia is the court system is a barrier to creating jobs,” Cohen said..

Toriseva also pointed to Expansion magazine’s ranking of West Virginia as eighth in the nation in terms of recruiting and attracting businesses.

Again, the CALA official referred to another grim showing, this one by Directorship magazine portraying the state as “an undesirable place to create jobs because of the legal climate.”

Toriseva sought to deflate a constant complaint by the chamber that civil litigation is out of control, citing studies by the National Center for State Courts ranking West Virginia at 35th in the number of filings per capita four years ago.

In fact, she said, civil filings in 2004 in West Virginia actually were 15 percent under the national median.

Cohen suggested the statistic was flawed, saying the figure was provided by “the same group that had called for an expansion of judges in West Virginia” in a recent legislative session.

“How can the same folks that want more judges cite a decline in civil litigation before the courts?” he asked.

Toriseva belittled the Harris survey as one with a predictable outcome tailored to make the court system look bad in West Virginia.

In rebuttal, Cohen said the survey blanketed the entire nation and asked, “Why would there be an agenda to single out West Virginia?”

“West Virginia is consistently rated at the bottom among all the states for its legal climate,” he said.

“Last year, interestingly, Forbes magazine cited the broken lawsuit system here as a major reason for being last in the nation to attract jobs, while cross the line to Virginia and you are in the best state for jobs.”

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