Gerald R. Linkous, Esq.|
Randal W. Roahrig & Associates
Princeton, West Virginia
Attorney for Appellant
Thomas L. Berry, Esq.|
Assistant Prosecuting Attorney
Princeton, West Virginia
Attorney for Appellee State of
The Opinion of the Court was delivered PER CURIAM.
1. Where the issue on an appeal from the circuit court is clearly a question
of law or involving an interpretation of a statute, we apply a de novo standard of review.
Syl. pt. 1, Chrystal R.M. v. Charlie A.L., 194 W. Va. 138, 459 S.E.2d 415 (1995).
2. Where the language of a statute is clear and without ambiguity the plain meaning is to be accepted without resorting to the rules of interpretation. Syl. pt. 2, State v. Elder, 152 W. Va. 571, 165 S.E.2d 108 (1968).
This case presents the straightforward issue of whether a magistrate, sitting as
juvenile referee, may order that a juvenile undergo an improvement period pursuant to
W. Va. Code § 49-5-9(b) (1998). For the reasons set forth below, we determine that a circuit
court judge is the only judicial officer authorized to take such action.
The appellant, Greg H.,See footnote 1
was allegedly involved in an altercation at Princeton
High School on March 10, 1999, which resulted in a petition of delinquency subsequently
being filed in the Circuit Court of Mercer County. A preliminary hearing was held on April
19, 1999, before Magistrate Roy Compton, sitting as juvenile referee.See footnote 2
At the preliminary hearing, Greg H. moved for an improvement period
pursuant to W. Va. Code § 49-5-9(b). Magistrate Compton subsequently granted the
requested improvement period, which was to run for one year. The State petitioned for
prohibition relief before the circuit court, arguing that Magistrate Compton had exceeded his
statutory authority by granting the requested improvement period. The circuit court granted
relief requiring Magistrate Compton to vacate his previous order, ruling that juvenile referees
do not have jurisdiction to grant improvement periods under the § 49-5-9(b). It is from this
ruling that Greg H. now appeals.
Appellant argues that the statute is ambiguous as to the meaning of the word
court, and that such term should be construed to include juvenile referees. Appellant
points to the fact that subsection (a)See footnote 3
of § 49-5-9 permits juvenile referees to conduct
preliminary hearings. After isolating language from E.B., Jr. v. Canterberry, 183 W. Va.
197, 200, 394 S.E.2d 892, 895 (1990), where the Court stated that [t]he juvenile is entitled
at th[e] preliminary hearing to move for an improvement period for a time period not to
exceed one year, appellant asserts that the legislative intent of promoting judicial efficiency
would be thwarted by not permitting juvenile referees to take the additional step of granting
an improvement period following a preliminary hearing. On the other hand, the State argues
that the word 'court' clearly refers to the circuit court, as that is the only 'court' that can
proceed to the adjudicatory stage. The State notes that our statement in Canterberry was
dictum, and did not go so far as to hold that a juvenile referee has jurisdiction to grant an
improvement period. We find merit in the State's arguments.
We begin with the premise that, as a non-constitutional officer, a juvenile
referee appointed pursuant to W. Va. Code § 49-5A-1 (1975) has only those powers either
expressly or impliedly conferred by statute. Cf. Segal v. Beard, 181 W. Va. 92, 95, 380
S.E.2d 444, 447 (1989) (noting in an analogous context that [t]he jurisdiction of a family
law master is purely statutory; he or she has no inherent powers) (citations omitted). The
juvenile referee scheme was initially put in place by the Legislature in 1972, in an effort to
better assist the courts of this jurisdiction in meeting the ever-expanding demands of our
juvenile justice system. Circuit courts are empowered to appoint juvenile referees under
authority conferred by § 49-5A-1,See footnote 4
which permits these statutory officers to conduct juvenile
detention hearings, and to perform such other duties as are assigned to him [or her] by the
court to carry out the purposes of this article. The duties set forth in Article 5A pertain
exclusively to detention hearings, although juvenile referees are elsewhere given authority
to hear a wide range of preliminary matters. See, e.g., W. Va. Code § 49-5-8(a) (authority
to issue orders directing that juveniles be taken into custody); W. Va. Code § 49-5-9(a)
(preliminary hearings in juvenile cases); W. Va. Code § 49-6-3(c) (emergency custody
hearings). Significantly, the Legislature has made it clear that the authority of juvenile
referees does not extent to making dispositive rulings on the merits of juvenile cases. See
W. Va. Code § 49-5A-1 (Referees shall not be permitted to conduct hearings on the merits
of any case.).
As with any matter involving statutory interpretation, our paramount goal is to ascertain and give effect to the intent of the Legislature. State ex rel. Goff v. Merrifield, 191 W. Va. 473, 446 S.E.2d 695 (1994); Hechler v. McCuskey, 179 W. Va. 129, 365 S.E.2d 793 (1987); State ex rel. Simpkins v. Harvey, 172 W. Va. 312, 305 S.E.2d 268 (1983). While there may be rare circumstances where a statute's literal meaning may be disregarded because to do so would lead to clearly unintended results,See footnote 5 5 courts are generally required to straightforwardly apply unambiguous statutory language. Where the language of a statute is clear and without ambiguity the plain meaning is to be accepted without resorting to the rules of interpretation. Syl. pt. 2, State v. Elder, 152 W. Va. 571, 165 S.E.2d 108 (1968).
See also syl. pt. 3, in part, West Virginia Health Care Cost Review Auth. v. Boone Mem.
Hosp., 196 W. Va. 326, 472 S.E.2d 411 (1996) (If the language of an enactment is clear and
within the constitutional authority of the lawmaking body which passed it, courts must read
the relevant law according to its unvarnished meaning, without any judicial embroidery.);
syl. pt. 1, Sowa v. Huffman, 191 W. Va. 105, 443 S.E.2d 262 (1994) ('A statutory provision
which is clear and unambiguous and plainly expresses the legislative intent will not be
interpreted by the courts but will be given full force and effect.') (citation omitted). A
statute is interpreted on the plain meaning of its provision in the statutory context, informed
when necessary by the policy that the statute was designed to serve. West Virginia Human
Rights Comm'n v. Garretson, 196 W. Va. 118, 123, 468 S.E.2d 733, 738 (1996) (footnote
and citation omitted).
In interpreting a statute, the initial focus is, of course, upon the statutory language itself. See Maikotter v. University of West Virginia Bd. of Trustees/West Virginia Univ., 206 W. Va. 691, 696, 527 S.E.2d 802, 807 (1999); West Virginia Human Rights Comm'n v. Garretson, 196 W. Va. at 123, 468 S.E.2d at 738. In the absence of any definition of the intended meaning of words or terms used in a legislative enactment, they will, in the interpretation of the act, be given their common, ordinary and accepted meaning in the connection in which they are used. Syl. pt. 1, Miners in General Group v. Hix, 123 W. Va. 637, 17 S.E.2d 810 (1941), overruled on other grounds, Lee-Norse Co. v. Rutledge,
170 W. Va. 162, 291 S.E.2d 477 (1982). Where the legislature does, however, declare what
a particular term means,See footnote 6
such definition is ordinarily binding upon the courts and excludes
any meaning that is not stated. See Colautti v. Franklin, 439 U.S. 379, 393 n.10, 99 S. Ct.
675, 684 n.10, 58 L. Ed. 2d 596, 607 n.10 (1979); see also Pittsburgh Nat. Bank v. United
States, 771 F.2d 73, 75 (1985).
In this case, the statute leaves no room for doubt as to what judicial officers are
empowered to grant improvement periods. Section 49-5-9(b) states that the court may delay
the adjudicatory hearing and allow a noncustodial improvement period. (Emphasis added.)
The term court is clearly defined in W. Va. Code § 49-1-4(3) (1998) to mean the circuit
court of the county with jurisdiction of the case or the judge thereof in vacation unless
otherwise specifically provided. Thus, in the present context, the term court must be
deemed to exclude a referee, which is elsewhere defined in § 49-1-4.See footnote 7
It is pointed out that there is one instance where the term court is used within
Article 5 to refer to both circuit court judges and juvenile referees. West Virginia Code
§ 49-5-8a(a) (1998) grants both officers, as well as magistrates, the authority to conduct
detention hearings, and goes on to direct that the court take various actions within the
course of such proceedings. While courts are generally bound by statutory definitions, there
are exceptions: [I]f the definition is arbitrary, creates obvious incongruities in the statute,
defeats a major purpose of the legislation or is so discordant to common usage as to generate
confusion, [the statutory definition] should not be used. 2A Norman J. Singer, Statutes and
Statutory Construction § 47:07, at 228-29 (6th ed. 2000) (footnote omitted). With respect
to § 49-5-8a(a), the Legislature clearly would not have expressly permitted a variety of
judicial officers to conduct detention hearings, while still requiring that the substantive
actions relating to such proceedings be undertaken exclusively by circuit court judges. In this
isolated instance, an unreasonable interpretation may be avoided by giving the term court
broader definition than would otherwise be warranted. As we have frequently emphasized,
it is the duty of this Court to avoid whenever possible a construction of a statute which leads
to absurd, inconsistent, unjust or unreasonable results. State v. Kerns, 183 W. Va. 130, 135,
394 S.E.2d 532, 537 (1990); see also State ex rel. Simpkins v. Harvey, 172 W. Va. at 321,
305 S.E.2d at 277.
Such logic does not apply, however, to § 49-5-9. Undoubtedly, there is a
natural presumption that identical words used in different parts of the same act are intended
to have the same meaning. . . . But the presumption is not rigid and readily yields whenever
there is such variation in the connection in which the words are used as reasonably to warrant
the conclusion that they are employed in different parts of the act with different intent.
Atlantic Cleaners & Dyers, Inc. v. United States, 286 U.S. 427, 433, 52 S. Ct. 607, 607, 76
L. Ed. 1204, 1207 (1932). Here we are dealing with a carefully drafted statutory provision,
which scrupulously employs the words court and referee as mutually exclusive terms.
There is simply nothing to indicate that the Legislature intended these terms to have any
meaning other than that prescribed by § 49-1-4. Contrary to our suggestion in E.B., Jr. v.
Canterberry, consideration of a motion for an improvement period is as much related to the
adjudicatory phase of proceedings as it is to the preliminary hearing. Subsection (b) of
§ 49-1-9 speaks in terms of delay[ing] the adjudicatory hearing and allow[ing] a
noncustodial improvement period, and there is no logical requirement that a motion for an
improvement period must be made or ruled upon in the setting of a preliminary hearing. We
therefore see no reason for taking the extraordinary step of interpreting the anomalous use
of the term court in § 49-1-8a as evidencing legislative intent to abandon wholesale the
word definitions otherwise provided by statute.See footnote 8
Consequently, the Court holds that a juvenile referee lacks jurisdiction to grant a juvenile an improvement period pursuant to W. Va. Code § 49-5-9(b); only a judge of a circuit court may exercise such statutory authority. As we have stressed on numerous occasions, [i]t is not the province of the courts to make or supervise legislation, and a statute may not, under the guise of interpretation, be modified, revised, amended, distorted, remodeled, or rewritten[.] State v. General Daniel Morgan Post No. 548, V.F.W., 144 W. Va. 137, 145, 107 S.E.2d 353, 358 (1959) (citation omitted). '[C]ourts must presume that a legislature says in a statute what it means and means in a statute what it says there.' Martin v. Randolph County Bd. of Educ., 195 W. Va. 297, 312, 465 S.E.2d 399, 414 (1995) (quoting Connecticut Nat'l Bank v. Germain, 503 U.S. 249, 253-54, 112 S. Ct. 1146, 1149, 117 L. Ed. 2d 391, 397 (1992)). Thus, we find no error in the circuit court granting relief to the State prohibiting Magistrate Compton from acting outside of his statutory authority.See footnote 9 9
For the reasons stated, the judgment of the Circuit Court of Mercer County is