The Reorganization Amendment replaced the Justice of the Peace Courts with a system of Magistrate Courts. The Constitution apportions at least two magistrates to each county. It also provides counties with greater populations additional magistrates through an apportionment scheme for a current total of 152 magistrates. In 1992, Kanawha County had the largest number of magistrates, ten, while thirty-one counties had the minimum of two. The number changed in January 1993 because of the adoption of a new system of allotment by the state legislature.
The Constitution grants magistrates county-wide limited jurisdiction over criminal matters and small civil claims. The Reorganization Amendment left it to the legislature to detail magistrate's duties, and a comprehensive legislative act in 1976 fixed the number, salary, qualifications, and discipline of magistrates. It defined available supporting staff, the duties of clerks and assistants and state and county financial support for the office. It also delineated the civil and criminal jurisdiction of the office, its basic pretrial and trial procedures, and the costs, fines, and other remedies that a magistrate might levy.
The legislature has amended the magistrate act several times since 1976, largely to adjust salaries, to reapportion the number of magistrates, to adjust court costs and to permit the payment of fines by credit card. The magistrate act originally established a three-tier salary schedule for the compensation of magistrates. It thus abandoned the fee system that characterized the pre-1976 justice of the peace system. The act, as amended in 1987, created two different salary levels for magistrates based on the population of the county. In 1993, the salary became $23,625 in counties with less than 10,000 people and $30,000 in the more populous counties.
Also, the magistrate act established a selection and training system. It also prohibits magistrates from holding office if they are the member of the immediate family of any other magistrate in the county. The magistrate act also requires magistrates to attend and complete a course of instruction after their election and attend continuing education sessions after assuming office. The Supreme Court of Appeals, through its Administrative Office, was assigned to conduct the courses of instruction. As far as the author is able to determine, this is one of very few laws in the United States which require post-election education of an elected public official. Magistrates who fail to attend instruction sessions are subject to penalties imposed through the state's system of judicial discipline.
The magistrate act outlines magistrate court procedures, and the Supreme Court of Appeals used its rule-making authority to promulgate additional procedural rules to govern the operations of these courts. In addition, the act establishes the jurisdiction of magistrate courts to include civil claims with a value of $3,000 or less and cases about unlawful entry or detainer of real estate. However, magistrates cannot consider actions in equity, eminent domain, real estate titles and liens, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, or slander and libel. The statute defined the criminal jurisdiction of the magistrate court to include misdemeanors or minor crimes, preliminary examination on felony warrants, the issuance of arrest and search warrants (except in capital cases), and the setting of bail. Bail can be set up to the amount of the potential fine unless there is a potential for jail time. Then it becomes a matter of the employment of sound discretion by the magistrate. Magistrate courts employ six person juries at the request of the parties. West Virginia and Texas are the only states that afford the unqualified right to jury trial in their lowest tier of courts. West Virginia Magistrate Courts are more restricted in their civil jurisdiction than similar courts in thirteen states.
Magistrates do not have to possess a law degree. Only three of the magistrates responding to the survey (2.9 percent) possessed a law degree, 22.9 percent had a college degree, 45.7 percent claimed at least some college level instruction, 24.8 percent held a high school diploma but no college instruction, and 3.8 percent possessed a G. E. D.
The majority of magistrates (52.4 percent) indicated that they had a career in the private sector prior to their election, 20 percent were civil servants, and 12.4 percent held another elected office. The range of careers was very diverse - from farmer to police officer to homemaker. Comparable national data on magistrates and other lower court judges does not exist.
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