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Family law takes heat at hearing

November 05, 1997

By DON AINES

Staff Writer, Martinsburg

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Family law bore the brunt of the criticism Tuesday night at a public hearing of the Commission on the Future of the West Virginia Judicial System in the Berkeley County Courthouse.

A dozen of the 20 speakers addressed the problems of family law, with several calling for changes or elimination of the law master system that deals with divorces, child custody, support and other domestic relations matters.

"The court needs to consider and the legislature needs to seriously consider moving to a family court system," said Del. Vicki Douglas, D-Berkeley. She said legal issues involving families are becoming increasingly complicated and burdensome for the court system.

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Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney Mike Thompson also testified in favor of creating a family court system, which he said would require changing the state constitution.

"In the future, other kinds of specialized courts could be needed," Thompson said. He advocates the creation of an intermediate appeals court to relieve the burden on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. The state's highest court created the 37-member commission holding the hearings.

The hearing was the first of eight to be held in the next few weeks, according to Martinsburg attorney Laura Rose, who moderated the hearing. About 100 people attended the meeting.

Law masters are appointed by the governor to four-year terms to mediate domestic relations cases, according to Ted Philyaw, the administrator for the Supreme Court.

"This position is too powerful to be placed in the hands of an unelected official," said Helen McCracken, president of Citizens Opposed to Poor Service.

Fred Blackmer of Harpers Ferry, W.Va., represented Citizens on Juvenile Crime in Jefferson County, composed mostly of juvenile crime victims.

"People in the community have no way of getting information on the status of the cases," he said.

He said victims fear retribution from juvenile felons released into the community.

James Tolbert, president of the West Virginia NAACP, had a list of complaints about the treatment of African-Americans by the justice system.

"Without a doubt, the bonds set for African-Americans are excessive when compared with Caucasians" facing similar charges, he said. Tolbert also complained about the lack of African-Americans on juries and in law enforcement and criticized police for not enforcing hate crime statutes.

Thomas Slater of Gerrardstown, W.Va., wanted to hear about tort reform at the hearing. "My hopes were dashed when I learned this would be moderated by the president of the West Virginia Trial Lawyers Association," he said, referring to Rose.

"That's putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop," he said.

Marie McMahon of Berkeley Springs, W.Va., was applauded when she spoke of court officials not upholding their oath to defend the constitution.

"Until we start removing people from office who do that, we have a broken system," McMahon said.

The commission is supposed to issue a report to the Supreme Court by Dec. 1, 1998. Philyaw said some changes could be made through the administrative and rule making authorities of the court.

More fundamental changes would require legislative action, he said.

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