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Court candidates talk about qualifications

May. 09, 2008 @ 11:09 PM

HUNTINGTON -- The Democratic primary for the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals is only a few days away, and thus far the race has generated little of the fervor on display in 2004.

That election four years ago garnered national attention for its nastiness and is still causing controversy for the high court.

There hasn't been any shortage of scandal heading into the election, with questions about justices being in the pocket of a top coal executive hanging in the air. And the candidates haven't ignored the issue, with many calling for serious reform for the way justices are elected.

But personal attacks thus far have been few, with candidates instead focusing on their own qualifications in trying to get their message across to voters.

Huntington attorney Menis Ketchum proudly touts that after four decades as a lawyer, he has more courtroom experience than most of the other candidates combined.

He said the experience, especially with the variety of cases he's handled, gives him a good understanding of the issues facing the people and businesses of West Virginia when it comes to the legal system.

"I've represented business and labor; I've represented insurance companies and injured people; I've represented hospitals and patients," he said. "I've been a litigator in Huntington, West Virginia, where you can't just pick one area or one side of an issue. You have to be happy with anyone who comes through the door.

"Here's my main qualification: I have advocated in the Supreme Court of Appeals," he added, going on to say he has the second-highest number of Supreme Court opinions with his name on them in the state.

"So I have more appellate advocacy experience than all the other candidates combined," he said.

Opponent Elliott "Spike" Maynard also has plenty of experience. After all, Maynard is the court's current Chief Justice, and has been a justice on the court since 1996. Before that, he was a judge in the 30th Judicial Circuit.

Maynard has been embattled somewhat by recent controversy, with photos surfacing earlier this year showing he and Massey Energy head Don Blankenship spending time together while they were vacationing in France. The photos came to light after Maynard helped reverse a $76 million verdict against Massey for stealing coal contracts from smaller companies and putting them out of business.

Though initially defiant, Maynard has since disqualified himself from all cases involving Massey Energy.

In a recent interview with the editorial board of The Herald-Dispatch, Maynard said he believes he did the right thing.

He also said he believes the state has seen significant progress during his tenure on the court and that he has been a part of that progress.

Maynard said he helped reverse West Virginia's "doctor drain" by reforming malpractice laws, and helped lower car insurance premiums by upholding changes in liability laws.

Like Maynard, Democratic candidate Margaret Workman has high court experience, serving as a justice from 1988 through 1999. She became West Virginia's first female chief justice.

"Experience is definitely my strong suit," Workman said. "When I came on the court, there was a lot of turmoil, and I think I helped calm that. We're seeing a lot of turmoil again, and I think I can calm the turmoil we read about in the paper every day."

Workman also has experience as a circuit judge in Kanawha County, where she claims to have "inherited the largest backlog of cases in the state." She was appointed to the post in 1981, and held it through two subsequent elections before running for the Supreme Court in 1988.

"Before those seven years were up, we held more jury trials than any other circuit, and when I left we had the lowest caseload," she said. "We did a record volume of work."

Rounding out the Democratic primary is Robert Bastress, a professor of law at West Virginia University and a practicing lawyer.

"I think 30 years of teaching and writing about the law and 35 years of litigating establishes my qualifications," he said. "I've reached the conclusion that I can best serve the public by being on the Supreme Court. I care deeply about the court and I think it needs help."

The top two vote-getters in Tuesday's primary will face Republican Beth Walker in the November general election, and the top two from that vote will fill the seats up for election.

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