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High court hopefuls mindful of critics

Oct. 14, 2012 @ 12:00 AM

CHARLESTON -- The four candidates for two seats on West Virginia's Supreme Court differ on how to respond to criticism of the state's judicial system from some business groups and others, each told The Associated Press.

Justice Robin Davis, the sole incumbent running, believes West Virginia's sole appeals court has improved greatly since she was first elected in 1996. Her fellow Democrat, recent State Bar President Tish Chafin, has proposed ways to make judicial officials more accountable.

Among the Republican nominees, Circuit Judge John Yoder advocates nonpartisan elections and an intermediate appeals court to address concerns. The GOP's Allen Loughry, a longtime Supreme Court law clerk, fears the judiciary is haunted by a legacy of West Virginia political corruption he chronicled in a recent book.

Both seats on the November ballot are up for a full, 12-year term.

Davis argued the court has answered its critics, particularly within the last several years. She considers the 2010 revamping of the rules for handling appeals the court's most momentous change. Among other changes, the revised rules require a written opinion explaining the court's ruling on every appeal.

Davis believes voters have noticed the court's efforts.

"They're very pleased with the approach our court is taking," Davis said. "We've made it very clear that we are a very fair court, that we don't have any hidden agendas. We simply follow the rule of law."

Chafin hopes the court, and legislators, assess how the revamped rules have performed before deciding whether to revisit them or go farther to ensure fairness. But Chafin's main focus has been to safeguard against conflicts of interest among the judiciary. She has proposed a new process for deciding when recusal is necessary, and calls for greater disclosure of communications between judges or justices and parties in a pending case.

But Chafin also believes some of the complaints about the courts have been unfair.

"The feedback that I get is, people like and trust their local court system," Chafin said. "When you talk more broadly, about the courts in general, when you talk about the faceless court system, that's where the perception comes in."

Yoder, a judge in the Eastern Panhandle, agreed the perception is partly unfair, but said "we have to pay more attention to that perception and address it, because it affects whether businesses come to this state and create jobs."

Concluding the revamped rules fall short, Yoder echoed calls from the U.S. Chamber and others for an intermediate appeals court. He also believes that if West Virginia sticks with judicial elections, it should make them nonpartisan.

Loughry said voters hold an unfavorable view of West Virginia elected officials generally, but such a view is unfair to many who seek office in the state. But Loughry also believes that corruption persists.

"I understand why people are frustrated with our political system. The perceptions of people quickly become a reality until we can change those perceptions," he said. "How a judge interprets the law is critically important to people's lives, and when people do not have confidence in the system, it is seen as just another political branch of government."

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