Former state senator Wooton running for Supreme Court

Bill Wooton, a longtime Democratic state legislator from Raleigh County, will run for state Supreme Court next year.

Wooton, who announced his candidacy Thursday, is the third person to join the race and the first putative Democrat. Supreme Court races, like all judicial elections in West Virginia, are now nonpartisan, but the two other candidates, incumbent Justice Brent Benjamin and Beth Walker, have both run as Republicans in the past.

“I’d bring integrity and ability to the job, and I have a proven record of fairness and impartiality,” Wooton said in a phone interview. “I’ve spent a lot of my life involved in public service. I think this is the venue where I can be most effective.”

Wooton said he would likely opt for the public financing option available to Supreme Court candidates. To qualify for public funding, a candidate must raise a total of $35,000 from contributions smaller than $100, all from West Virginia voters.

Qualifying candidates can then receive up to $525,000 in public funds for a contested election.

“The reason that became law in West Virginia is — to the extent it can — to remove the taint that arises when lawyers who appear before the court make contributions to judges on the court,” Wooton said. “I’ll probably pursue that avenue.”

Benjamin has also said he will use public financing; Walker has said she will not. Benjamin famously benefited from millions of dollars in outside spending — much of it from then-Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship — when he was elected to the court in 2004.

Wooton served in the state Senate in the 1990s, serving as chairman of the powerful Judiciary Committee for 10 years.

Prior to that, he had two stints in the House of Delegates, serving for more than 20 years in the 1970s and 1980s, including a stretch as House majority leader.

He served one more term in the House of Delegates in 2008, before losing elections in 2010 and 2012.

Wooten also clerked for Judge John Field on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, worked in the state attorney general’s office and was an assistant prosecutor in Raleigh County. He is a retired colonel in the West Virginia Army National Guard.

Wooton is currently in private practice in Beckley, with the law firm Wooton & Wooton.

Reach David Gutman at david.gutman@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5119 or follow @davidlgutman on Twitter.

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