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WV House of Delegates OKs public funding of court races

Mar. 03, 2010 @ 10:48 PM

CHARLESTON -- A bill that would create a pilot program setting new campaign regulations for West Virginia Supreme Court candidates passed the House of Delegates Wednesday by a vote a 67-30.

House Bill 4130 would set up a pilot program for a publicly financed state Supreme Court race.

This bill would affect the primary and general elections for Supreme Court justices in 2012. Gov. Joe Manchin proposed the measure, recommended by last year's court study and inspired by a North Carolina program.

Candidates can raise their own campaign funds with different rules and limitations during different periods of the election process. Limits on individual contributions to the candidates' campaigns would be set. Candidates who qualify by raising minimum amounts of money would receive public funds. But each candidate's total campaign fund (including both money they've raised and public money) could be no more than $200,000 for a contested primary race and no more than $350,000 for a contested general election.

However, the measure would allow for extra funding triggered by massive spending by third parties or nonparticipating candidates.

According to the bill, the pilot project would expire in 2013.

Supporters say it's a necessary experiment to clean up a process that makes it too easy for special interests to plug massive amounts of funding into a candidate's campaign.

"Money in politics is bad, but money in the judiciary is abhorrent to justice," said Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha. "Not only might it possibly influence somebody ... but it is the appearance of impropriety that leads to the feeling of those participants in the court cases that they're not getting a fair shake when they come before the judiciary.

"... This would make West Virginia a better place for employers to do business and for people to get a fair shake."

The issue of how campaigns for Supreme Court justices are funded came into sharp focus in 2004, when Massey Energy chief executive officer Don Blankenship spent millions of dollars on behalf of Brent Benjamin against incumbent Warren McGraw.

Opponents say the purpose of the bill passed Wednesday is great, but it needs further work.

It would be funded through court fees. That portion of the bill was added by the House Finance Committee, which nixed an amendment made by the House Judiciary Committee.

Local delegates Kelli Sobonya and Carol Miller, both R-Cabell, voted against the bill because they did not like the way it was funded. Some of the West Virginians whose fees would fund the program would be going through divorce or have domestic violence cases in the court system and shouldn't be taxed in such a way, they said.

"We firmly want judicial reform, ... but to put it on the backs of people down on their luck is unconscionable," Miller said.

"Why would you want to charge a victim in the court system for a judicial candidate who they may or may not like," Sobonya said, adding that she doesn't trust that the pilot program would be reviewed for its effectiveness before it becomes a permanent program.

Local delegates Kevin Craig, D-Cabell; Jim Morgan, D-Cabell; Don Perdue, D-Wayne; Doug Reynolds, D-Wayne; and Dale Stephens, D-Cabell; voted in favor of the bill.

Craig stressed that it's a pilot project. He said the Legislature has struggled with how to fund this type of program for years, and said he'd be open to adjusting the way it's funded after looking at its results.

"This is very limited in scope -- two races," he said. "That should give us valuable information as to whether it's successful or if it fails."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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