CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Twelve candidates for Kanawha County magistrate discussed with Gazette editors Thursday what they like and dislike about procedural changes imposed on the court six months ago.
In March, Chief Kanawha Circuit Judge Duke Bloom announced the construction of a fifth courtroom and changes to how magistrate hearings are scheduled. The changes took scheduling out of the magistrates' hands to streamline the court's hearing process and alleviated some of their workload, Bloom said.
The nine Democratic incumbent candidates agreed the additional courtroom has improved the bottleneck of cases but disagreed with the scheduling changes. They said they feel micromanaged by the higher court and say they have no control over what cases they hear in a given day.
Three newcomers, Democrats Brent Hall and Republicans John Jarman and Michael Sisson, said they had heard about some of these complaints and suggested ways to improve the systems.
Incumbent Tim Halloran said he wants control over his dockets again.
"You used to be able to see we were getting a lot of [driving under the influence] charges and you could schedule just a morning to clear up some of those," he said. "But that was taken away earlier this year."
Incumbent Jack Pauley agreed and called the new system "a disaster."
"The chief judge has taken over to micromanage the magistrates," Pauley said.
The other incumbents agreed they'd like to go back to the old system if they were re-elected.
The additional courtroom has eliminated any wait time, said incumbent Julie Yeager. The magistrates are mostly waiting now because the process has caught up to speed, she said.
Incumbent Paris Workman said a lot of the wait time was on prosecutors to secure a witness or a perpetrator to figure out their representation.
Yeager also lauded a decision to place juvenile cases under Chief Magistrate Traci Carper-Strickland. Cases involving Domestic Violence Petitions are now under the Kanawha County Family Court umbrella, she added.
Joe Shelton has served longer than any other incumbent and said the court runs better and much differently than it did more than 20 years ago.
"Keep in mind this is the only court in the state that operates 24/7," he said.
Hall, a Democratic candidate with about five years of experience as a paralegal, said continuing to improve the wait time is one of the biggest issues he'd take up while on the bench. It's improved, he said, but is still not perfect.
The biggest gripe, said Sisson, a Republican candidate with police experience, is the number of continuances and postponements during the magistrate process. If elected, he said, he would talk to prosecutors and public defenders to cut down on unnecessary requests to continue cases.
Halloran said he'd like to see the county return to the bail bondsmen system. It used to be that way more than 10 years ago before it was done away with for corruption allegations. Those allegations wouldn't arise if the system were entrusted to a national bail bond company, he said.
Incumbent Pete Lopez said he's opposed to that idea because there wouldn't be enough money for a company to profit. Most bails are set as a 10 percent payment.
"The 10 percent that would go to the bail bondsmen goes to cover their court cost," he said.
The candidates also discussed court perception after former magistrate Carol Fouty was accused of ethics violations and resigned in August. The incumbents agreed the Fouty scandal has tarnished their image but said they are moving forward.
Carper-Strickland said the remaining incumbents each posses the knowledge of right from wrong. Incumbent Kim Aaron agreed and said most people feel it's not fair to judge everyone based on one person's actions.
Jarman, who was named by Kanawha County Republicans to the ballot after Fouty resigned, said he's seen the level of integrity in magistrate court and would uphold it if elected. Republicans fielded just four candidates for the 10 magistrate slots; GOP candidates Dianna Graves and Bob Keller said they could not attend Thursday's meeting.
Reach Travis Crum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5163.