After a tumultuous year in the West Virginia Supreme Court that included two justices leaving and one suspended after a federal conviction, West Virginia voters chose former Republican officeholders Evan Jenkins and Tim Armstead to fill the two open seats on the court.
Voters also overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the West Virginia Constitution that will give state legislators more control over the judicial budget.
Jenkins and Armstead were temporarily appointed to the open Supreme Court seats by Gov. Jim Justice earlier this year. They each faced nine challengers in the race to formally claim those seats.
Jenkins was unavailable for comment Tuesday evening.
Armstead, the former speaker of the House of Delegates, ran in the Division 1 race to complete the term of Menis Ketchum, who resigned rather than face impeachment proceedings. He later pleaded guilty to a federal wire fraud charge.
With 1,705 of 1,735 precincts reporting, Armstead had 128,211 votes, or nearly 26 percent of those cast, according to unofficial results from the Associated Press. Kanawha Circuit Judge Joanna Tabit was his closest challenger with 110,340 votes, or 22 percent. Berkeley Circuit Judge Chris Wilkes was next, with 63,813, or 13 percent of the vote, followed by former Kanawha County legislator Mark Hunt, with 59,773 votes, or 12 percent.
Others running for that seat included, in order of votes received, Cabell County lawyer Ronald Hatfield Jr., Nitro lawyer Jeff Woods, former Republican attorney general candidate Hiram Lewis IV, Williamson lawyer Robert Carlton, Charleston lawyer Harry “Bo” Bruner Jr. and Cabell County lawyer D.C. Offutt Jr.
Armstead will be on the Supreme Court bench through 2020, the end of Ketchum’s term.
“The people have spoken through the election today, so I look forward to getting to work and continuing the work we’ve already done. We’ve been there hearing cases, we’ve been working on the budget, we’ve been working on policies to ensure that we do not have a repeat of some of the instances that have happened over the last year and I want to continue that work,” Armstead said Tuesday night.
“I think that’s how any of us will earn the confidence of the people of West Virginia is doing what we say, what we said we would do to restore that confidence [in the court]. Every day we do that, every day that we spend the taxpayers’ money [competently] as a court, every day we rule on cases fairly and impartially, that restores confidence.”
Tabit said she was a bit let down by the results, but held no worries about Armstead’s election to the court.
“He’s a class act, and we go back,” she said, noting that she shared a phone call with him earlier in the evening to congratulate him on his victory. “It’s hard for me to be disappointed with the turnout — I was very proud of the race that we ran, in that compressed election cycle. It was a challenge, but I really enjoyed the opportunity and maybe I’ll be able to do it again in a couple more years.”
In the Division 2 race, former congressman Jenkins ran away with the race by garnering 179,340 votes, or 36 percent of those cast, with 98 percent of precincts counted statewide.
His closest competitor, Charleston lawyer Dennise Renee Smith, had 69,204 votes, or 14 percent of the vote. Former state Senate leader Jeff Kessler had 59,350 votes, or 12 percent, and Kanawha Family Court Judge Jim Douglas had 46,669 votes, or 9 percent.
Other candidates, in order of votes received, were Boone Circuit Judge William Thompson, Lewisburg lawyer Robert J. Frank, Wheeling lawyer Jim O’Brien, Hurricane lawyer Brenden Long, Charleston lawyer William Schwartz and Wheeling lawyer Marty “Redshoes” Sheehan.
West Virginians on Tuesday also approved Amendment 2, which stood with a margin of 72 percent in support and 28 percent against with 1,630 out of 1,735 precincts reporting. The amendment gives West Virginia lawmakers control over budgets for the state court system.
Lavish use of public money and other resources by Supreme Court justices — including, infamously, a $32,000 couch bought by Justice Allen Loughry and a “Cass Gilbert” desk that Loughry took home and then returned after a Gazette-Mail inquiry — led lawmakers to put Amendment 2 on the ballot.
Reports of that spending also prompted the Republican-led Legislature to impeach the entire court. Critics of the process, including many Democratic legislators, say that the impeachment was a sham to enable a Republican takeover of the court. That criticism increased after the governor appointed longtime politicians Armstead and Jenkins, both Republicans, to the Supreme Court. Their appointments brought legal challenges and petitions looking to bar them from taking the temporary seats and, in Jenkins’ case, from running for Davis’ unexpired term. Those challenges were rejected.
After the House of Delegates impeached the court, Justice Beth Walker, a former Republican candidate, was censured by the state Senate but allowed to remain in office. Justice Margaret Workman sued to stop her impeachment, and a temporarily-seated Supreme Court agreed with her, putting impeachment proceedings against her, Davis and Loughry on hold.
Loughry, who has been suspended from the court, awaits sentencing after being convicted of 11 federal charges earlier this fall.
Both Armstead and Jenkins have opined in the past about how they would use their positions on the high court to restore public trust in the Supreme Court.
Jenkins, in an interview with editors at the Charleston Gazette-Mail in October, said he wanted to be part of a solution for the Supreme Court’s issues. He emphasized working with the state auditor to improve transparency within the court.