W.Va. high court candidates say public's faith shaken
HUNTINGTON -- While on the campaign trail for a seat for the state's highest court, candidates say they are learning voters have trust issues.
Recent scandals and perceived conflicts of interest are at the top of citizens' lists of things to correct when two justices are elected to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals in November.
One justice at the center of recent controversy must first survive the Democratic primary on May 13 if he is to have a shot at retaining his seat.
Chief Justice Elliott "Spike" Maynard voted with a slim majority last year to reverse a Boone County verdict that would have cost coal company Massey Energy $76 million for stealing contracts from smaller companies and putting them out of business.
After the decision, photos surfaced showing Maynard with Massey Chief Executive Officer Don Blankenship while they were on vacation in France.
Though initially holding his judgment had not been compromised, Maynard eventually disqualified himself from that case and several others involving Massey.
In an interview with The Herald-Dispatch, Maynard said he understood the publicity the story received, though he said some in the press "have gone overboard."
"It's not right to accuse people of criminal activities when none have occurred," he said.
Other than that, Maynard said he believes he did the right thing by stepping away from cases involving Massey.
But the controversy doesn't stop there. Litigants have called time and again for Justice Brent Benjamin's disqualification in Massey cases, because Blankenship spent $3.5 million in advertisements and donations to get Benjamin elected in 2004. Benjamin has yet to step down in any of those cases.
"I have heard a lot of concerns about Maynard's failure to disclose his trip to Europe with Mr. Blankenship, and I have questions about his judgment in even going on the trip," said Robert Bastress, a West Virginia University law professor who is running in the Democratic primary. "Then you see the failure of Justice Benjamin to recuse himself; I don't have any reason to question his integrity, but I do question his resistance.
"I think integrity issues are big in this election."
Margaret Workman, a former justice from 1988 through 1999 and West Virginia's first female chief justice, said she has heard different takes from voters on the controversy, but said all are of the same mind that it needs to be stamped out.
"Even people who don't ordinarily pay a lot of attention to the Supreme Court are saying this needs to get straightened out," she said.
Workman, a Democrat, said she has gotten the sense that a certain amount of quid pro quo is almost expected in politics, but that voters take it more seriously when it comes to the state's high court.
"There's something about the Supreme Court that is almost sacrosanct to people," she said. "They feel the Supreme Court ought to be above all of that.
"The court is the place where things are supposed to get resolved. They want it to be a place where political shenanigans don't go on."
Democratic candidate and Huntington attorney Menis Ketchum offered similar thoughts, saying he's heard about integrity issues from voters across the state, even in those areas affiliated more with Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh.
"That's still their number one concern," he said. "They feel that our Supreme Court has lost its integrity and lost its sense of fairness.
"I think the voters are looking to return the court to one of interest for all people, unaffected by special interests."
The only candidate without a primary opponent is lone Republican Beth Walker.
Walker has been campaigning, though, and she said she has heard plenty about the damage done to the court's image.
"People understand that when our system has been fit with unflattering labels, or is perceived as unfair, that's an additional burden for the state of West Virginia," she said. "If that could change, and I think it can, it could really help our state as a whole."