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Letitia "Tish" Chafin: Transparency would restore public confidence

Oct. 07, 2012 @ 12:16 AM

Public confidence in the judicial independence of the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia came into question in 2008 when email messages sent from a then-sitting Supreme Court justice to a litigant were not disclosed under our state's Freedom of Information Act. The Associated Press had requested that the Supreme Court's administrative staff disclose all written and electronic communications between the sitting justice and Donald L. Blankenship, who was then the president of A.T. Massey Coal Co. The request sought documents reflecting communications that occurred during the period where Massey's appeal of Hugh Caperton's $50 million verdict was pending before the Supreme Court of Appeals. The court's administrative office refused, and in a 2009 decision, the Supreme Court upheld the refusal to disclose the written communications. The litigation of this case resulted in the court spending over $50,000 of taxpayer money on private lawyers to keep these communications secret.

As a candidate for the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia in the upcoming Nov. 6 general election, I believe that the court should act to create a rule that would require disclosure of all written and electronic communications between a party (or an officer of a corporate party) with a pending case and any judicial officer assigned to that case. My Transparent Court Initiative is based on the belief that public confidence in our courts requires them to be open, fair and independent. I believe the public has a right to know if a litigant and a judge or justice are communicating while a case is pending. Courts cannot be perceived as open or transparent when litigants and judges correspond in secret while cases are pending. Adoption of my Transparent Court Initiative will help restore an open, impartial West Virginia court system, where citizens and business interests will know that their cases are heard fairly and equitably.

The adoption of my initiative has a number of advantages. First, expensive litigation over what is or is not a public record can be avoided. Second, a formal rule will discourage litigants from attempting to engage in secret improper communications. Third, these disclosures will help assure that conflicts of interest are adequately addressed. Finally, and most importantly, the citizens of this state can be assured that cases are argued by parties before the justices in public where all sides have a fair chance to address the arguments of the opposition.

As a past member of the American Bar Association's House of Delegates and a former president of the West Virginia State Bar, I believe transparency is paramount to securing public confidence in the judiciary. I have had a number of conversations with business leaders, consumers and workers throughout the state. In addition, during my year of service as State Bar President, I traveled to all 55 county courthouses and met with judges, prosecutors, magistrates and members of each local bar. And over the past year as part of this campaign, I have traveled throughout the state and talked with thousands of people from all walks of life. From these conversations, I am convinced that perceptions created when the judiciary is not seen as open, fair, and independent destroy the public confidence that is necessary for an effective judiciary. Business leaders tell us that these misperceptions that our courts are not fair makes it harder to attract new jobs to the state.

Judicial candidates are generally not permitted to make promises on how they will rule on issues in cases that are likely to come before the court. So instead, most judicial candidates campaign by promising to be fair and impartial. I believe that voters deserve more when they decide who will serve as a justice on our state's highest court for a 12-year term.

Judicial candidates can propose reforms of rules that govern the administration of justice. Like my Balanced Court Initiative, which seeks to reform the Supreme Court's recusal rules, I proposed my Transparent Court Initiative because I believe that these initiatives provide concrete evidence of how I would implement my promise to the voters to be fair and impartial.

To read my Transparent Court Initiative and Balanced Court Initiative, go to www.chafin2012.com.

Letitia "Tish" Chafin, of Charleston, is a Democratic candidate for the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.

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