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Judges appointed for public campaign financing, magistrate cases

F. BRIAN FERGUSON | Gazette-Mail file photo
W.Va. Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin

All five state Supreme Court Justices have voluntarily recused themselves from cases involving public campaign financing money in the upcoming election to fill the open Supreme Court seat.

Justice Brent Benjamin, who is running for re-election, has asked the high court to overturn Kanawha Circuit Judge Tod Kaufman’s ruling last week which found the State Election Commission’s decision in January to certify Benjamin for public campaign financing “clearly erroneous.”

Justices have also been asked to decide whether the SEC’s decision allowing Beckley lawyer and former legislative leader Bill Wooton the use of public campaign financing money for his bid for Supreme Court should be upheld.

Beth Walker, another candidate for the Supreme Court seat, filed lawsuits challenging the SEC’s decisions allowing both men to use the public money.

On Monday, Kanawha Circuit Judge Charles King said he thought the SEC was wrong about Wooton, but sent the question to the Supreme Court to be answered.

Oral arguments in both cases will be held March 23. Wooton’s case will begin at 10 a.m., and Benjamin’s will follow at 11 a.m., according to a press release from the Supreme Court.

Chief Justice Menis Ketchum appointed Senior Status Judge Thomas Keadle to serve as chief justice over the campaign financing cases.

Keadle, in turn, appointed Circuit Judges John Hatcher of Fayette County, James Mazzone of Ohio County, Thomas Evans III of Jackson County and retired judge James Holliday of Putnam County, who is a senior status judge, to hear the cases.

With the introduction of nonpartisan judicial elections this year, the Supreme Court election will be on May 10 — two months away.

This is the second election in which public financing has been used.

It’s meant to protect the integrity of judicial elections by setting up a barrier between potential justices and big donors. Justice Allen Loughry used public money in winning his court seat in 2012, during a trial run of the financing system.

Former justice and state attorney general Darrell McGraw and Clay lawyer Wayne King are also running for Supreme Court.

In a separate matter before the Supreme Court on Wednesday, Ketchum appointed Circuit Judge Gary Johnson of Nicholas County to fill in for Benjamin when justices hear arguments over Hurricane resident Troy Sexton running for magistrate.

Arguments will be held March 15 in that case.

On Monday, the state Judicial Investigation Commission said Sexton should be removed from the ballot because he has been convicted of several misdemeanors.

Some of those charges include “moral turpitude,” the commission wrote.

Sexton is one of three running for one of the magistrate positions in Putnam. He has said he should remain on the ballot.

The commission made recommendations to the Supreme Court and justices will ultimately decide.

Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1723 or follow @KateLWhite on Twitter.

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