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Mike Woelfel: Magistrate's position requires tougher criteria

Oct. 20, 2012 @ 12:25 AM

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one of a series of columns written by candidates in contested races in the Nov. 6 general election.

In the Magistrate Court of West Virginia, there are many complicated laws and procedures that magistrates face every day. Due to these complicated duties, I believe that the current educational requirements for the office of magistrate are simply outdated and must be increased.

Currently, all that is required to file for the office of magistrate is a high school diploma or GED. Since 2008, I have served as a district representative of the West Virginia Magistrate Association. One of the tasks of this association has been to enhance the educational requirements for the office of magistrate. The Magistrate Association, in conjunction with many other magistrates across the state, have worked with their local senators and delegates to help create and endorse a bill to require all magistrate candidates to have a college degree in order to file for the office. However, our efforts have failed due to one reason or another since first presenting this to the House of Delegates Government Organization Committee in 2008. That did not deter this group from relentlessly pursuing this very important change to the magistrate court. Our organization continued in 2009 with the bill passing the House of Delegates, but it ultimately died in the Senate. In 2011, the bill addressing magistrate educational requirements was presented to the Senate. The bill died in the Senate Finance Committee.

Although our goal wasn't met, it was clear to both the House and Senate leadership that this is one of the most important issues facing the magistrate court today.

There are many factors which support increasing the educational requirements for the office of magistrate. For example, on a daily basis a magistrate performs many complicated duties such as search warrants, complex civil cases and felony preliminary examinations, which include murder cases, just to name a few. A college degree, particularly a bachelor's degree, can provide the necessary foundation to handle these complicated issues and procedures that magistrates face. When the magistrate system was created decades ago, a high school diploma was most likely sufficient to handle the duties of the system. However, that is simply no longer the case.

Our citizens demand and deserve swift, impartial and effective resolution of legal matters. The magistrate court system remains a major component in our civil justice system and our criminal justice system. The court system constantly strives for improvement. This desire is evident by the many progressive modifications statewide enacted in recent months by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. The Legislature, in my view, should follow the lead of our highest court and elevate the basic formal requirements for judicial office in the magistrate court system.

I attended Marshall University and received a bachelor's degree in criminal justice. This degree has prepared me to effectively serve as Cabell County magistrate for the last nine years. The responsibilities of a magistrate are critical and complex.

In 2011, Cabell County Magistrate Court handled 7,106 misdemeanor cases, 2,123 felony arrests, 1,136 domestic violence petitions and 3,236 civil suits. With a total of 14,127 total filings, each of the seven magistrates in Cabell County handled an average of 2,017 cases last year. With this size case load, properly educated and trained judges are imperative. With an immense amount of responsibility placed upon every magistrate, I believe that a degree requirement would give the public a better field of candidates from which it can choose into the office of magistrate.

Please exercise your constitutional right to vote on Nov. 6.

Mike Woelfel, a resident of Huntington, is a Democratic candidate for Cabell County magistrate.

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