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Supreme Court candidates would like to see changes

Apr. 22, 2008 @ 10:55 PM

There's nothing to be done about it in this election, but the five candidates seeking a seat on the state's highest court agree they'd like to see a change in how justices are selected.

West Virginia is one of only seven states to have partisan elections for its Supreme Court. Escalated spending, fierce campaigning and recent scandals have damaged the court's image, making the average citizen see a judge more as a politician than an impartial dispenser of justice, candidates said.

The latest controversy centers around Justice Brent Benjamin, who is not up for re-election, continuing to oversee a case involving a $76 million damages verdict against Massey Energy. Massey executive Don Blankenship spent about $3.5 million in 2004 to help get Benjamin elected over then-Justice Warren McGraw, who had a reputation for ruling against coal companies in high-profile cases.

Blankenship also has ties to Chief Justice Elliott "Spike" Maynard. The two were photographed together while they were vacationing on the French Riviera in 2006, when the case was before the court. Maynard has since disqualified himself in the matter.

"I've begrudgingly come to the conclusion that it probably would improve confidence in the court to make a change in the elections," said Democratic candidate Bob Bastress, a professor of law at West Virginia University. "We're one of only a handful of states that has this system.

"I think electing judges is fine, but I think we need to greatly reduce the role money plays in the process," Bastress added.

He also said non-partisan elections would shorten the process, something other candidates also think would be of benefit to the court.

One candidate in favor of switching to a merit-based selection system is Huntington attorney Menis Ketchum. But Ketchum said a merit system wouldn't mean the people wouldn't have a voice.

He said justices should be selected based on their qualifications, then, after a term of three years, the public should be allowed to vote on whether to keep that justice in office. If that justice makes it through that election, the next one would come in five years, he said.

It's the same system that was pioneered in Missouri.

Ketchum said he envisions that type of system eliminating special interest control of the court.

"I want the voters to have a say, but if millions of dollars are spent, the voters can be persuaded without being advised of all of the facts," Ketchum said. "Select (justices) on merit, put them in there for three years and then let the people vote them up or down ... that allows the voters to still have a say."

Democratic candidate Margaret Workman also favors reform.

"I do think we should go to a non-partisan system, because it shortens the cycle," added Workman, who served on the Supreme Court from 1988 through 1999 and was the state's first female chief justice. "Right now, you have to go anywhere from a year to a year-and-a-half acting like a politician."

There are 13 states that hold non-partisan elections for their high courts. Twenty-four states select justices on a merit-based system and the remainder have justices appointed by the governor.

Appointment is something Workman said she doesn't favor.

"There is no perfect system," she said. "I do agree the present system is in need of reform, but I'm not really for appointed judges. I think that's just another form of high-power politics."

Maynard, a Democrat and the only incumbent seeking re-election for the court's two open seats, said change is needed, but added he didn't want to take away the people's right to select their judges.

"I don't think partisan politics has any place in the courts," Maynard said. "I don't think the people of West Virginia will ever give up their right to elect judges."

Maynard also pointed out that a shortened election cycle would save money on the cost of campaigning and conducting elections.

"There are two elections right now: a primary and a general," said Republican candidate Beth Walker, who is unopposed in the primary. "Putting that additional election in there just adds to the politics of the court.

"It puts you in the position to be rivals, and then it's more difficult to work together on the court."

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