Mountain State voters will determine the majority of the West Virginia Supreme Court this primary election.
There’s no shortage of people running for the three seats that are up on the five-member court, and there’s no shortage of significance among the 10 candidates as to how this election could shape the state’s judiciary for at least the next four years.
Two races are for terms that expire this year and will last until 2032. The third race is to complete the last four years of the term former justice Allen Loughry vacated in 2018.
The 2018 impeachment that was a factor in Loughry’s resignation wasn’t cited as the primary motivating factor for most of the candidates, who talked with the Gazette-Mail about what is working well and what could be improved on in the state’s judicial system.
Chief Justice Tim Armstead is up for reelection, as is Justice John Hutchison, who has been serving on a temporary appointment since January 2019 in Loughry’s vacated seat.
Justice Margaret Workman isn’t seeking reelection this year, and Justices Beth Walker and Evan Jenkins are not up for election this cycle.
Judicial elections in West Virginia are nonpartisan. In effect, that means candidate’s party affiliations aren’t listed on the ballot, but candidates still can be endorsed by and receive campaign funding from political parties and other political organizations.
Because party affiliation isn’t part of the voting process in judicial races, elections for magistrates, family court judges, circuit court judges and Supreme Court justices are decided during the primary election. There are no judicial races during a general election, unless the need for a special election arises during that time.
The races are broken up into divisions, which are based only on the office vacancy and not on any other geographic or political boundaries.
A regular term for a West Virginia Supreme Court justice lasts 12 years.
The people elected for the two regularly expiring seats will take office in January, and the person elected to complete what had been Loughry’s term, expiring in 2024, will take office as soon as possible.
After being appointed by Gov. Jim Justice in August 2018 and elected by West Virginians the following November, Chief Justice Tim Armstead already is facing his first reelection campaign for the Supreme Court.
Challenging Armstead are Marshall Circuit Judge David Hummel and former justice Richard Neely.
Armstead, of Elkview, said justices during the past two years have worked to put in place policies regarding travel expenses and use of state resources and to increase transparency of the court as a whole.
He said the court was “on the right track” after the 2018 impeachment, but he said there is still more work to do, especially in child abuse and neglect cases and drug treatment courts.
He wants to put more community support resources in the hands of judges, to make them accessible in these cases, saying some people suffering from substance abuse only get access to treatment when they enter the judicial system.
Armstead said his experience as an administrator in two branches of government — he was speaker of the West Virginia House of Delegates from 2014 until 2018 — sets him apart from other candidates.
The far-reaching authority of the court in the function of the legal system, as well as the daily lives of West Virginians should be motivation for voters to engage in the Supreme Court election during the 2020 cycle, Armstead said.
“The Supreme Court basically runs the circuit courts, the magistrate courts, the family courts and probation throughout all 55 counties of our state,” he said. “I think it’s important to have people on the court who have the ability to administer the court system.”
Hummel said he wants to take what he’s learned during his 20 years as a judge in a circuit that contains Marshall, Tyler and Wetzel counties and apply it at the state level. In particular, Hummel, who is the administrator of drug treatment court in his judicial circuit, administers the court using a behavioral health model, instead of community corrections. He said he wants to take the model statewide.
Being the only candidate from north of the Kanawha Valley also puts him at an advantage as having dealt with oil- and gas-related cases, Hummel said.
Because the Supreme Court sets the tone for the rest of the judges and magistrates, and voters set the tone of the Supreme Court, Hummel said, the magnitude of the 2020 election for West Virginians “cannot be overstated.”
“That’s a considerable responsibility,” he said. “This is a one-and-one election. Once those justices, whoever they may be, are elected on June 9, that’s who we have for the next 12 years.”
Neely, of Charleston, served on the Supreme Court from 1973 to 1995 when he retired from the bench. He’s been in private practice in Charleston since then.
Neely said the state’s court system is “in a shambles” and requires some dramatic repair work. He said he wants the Supreme Court to return to a system of requiring arguments as to why cases should be granted a full appeal and be heard by the court, as they did when he was a justice. Under that system, justices didn’t issue opinions or decisions for the cases they declined to hear.
The way the court functions now, the justices still decide which cases will be argued before them. The biggest difference now, he said, is that, in cases the court agrees to hear, justices issue an opinion based on the arguments, and in cases that don’t have hearings in front of the court, the justices issue a memorandum decision as to why they aren’t hearing the case, and why, subsequently, the existing court action will stand.
Neely said that’s created a backlog of cases and delayed resolution in cases throughout the state.
During the 2020 regular legislative session, the court issued a statement saying cases were not backlogged.
A need for urgency in the court, Neely said, is the reason West Virginians should feel a sense of urgency in voting in this election.
“We need to get the court stabilized,” he said. “We need to take control of the court back into the hands of the judges who have actually practiced law, at least some of us have, and begin to mold the system in such a way that it actually serves the litigants.”
With longtime Justice Workman not seeking reelection, there’s the guarantee of at least one new person on the Supreme Court at the start of 2021.
There are four people vying to replace Workman: Kanawha Family Court Judge Jim Douglas; Putnam Assistant Prosecutor Kris Raynes; Kanawha Circuit Judge Joanna Tabit; and Beckley attorney and former state legislator Bill Wooton.
Douglas and Tabit previously sought to be elected to the court during the special elections of 2018 to replace former justices Robin Davis and Menis Ketchum, both of whom left the court amid impeachment proceedings in the Legislature.
Douglas said he has the broadest experience of anyone in the race, from being a prosecuting attorney in Braxton County to working in private practice and working as a family court judge.
He said he wants to make the court more accessible, adding that he would like to see more judges, particularly family court judges, hear cases at least one Saturday a month, as he does in Kanawha County.
Douglas said that, with the 2020 Census, the people elected to the 12-year terms would be on the bench if any issues with drawing new legislative and congressional districts in the state make their way to the Supreme Court. He also said he hopes people realize the issues that affect their lives the most could potentially be in the hands of those who are elected to the court.
“There are two 12-year terms to be determined in this election for 2020, as well as one 4-year term,” Douglas said. “That means this Supreme Court will be setting the policy of the state of West Virginia for the next decade-plus. I think there ought to be people on that Supreme Court who have had practical experience, not only in practicing law but in running courts and having their boots on the ground.”
Raynes said she likes to tell people she is a conservative person with conservative values.
She said she wants to focus more on the specialty courts, including drug treatment court and veterans court, saying there need to be more resources available for people as they leave treatment programs and the supervision the court system.
When it comes to the accountability of the court, Raynes said she wants voters to consider past ethical issues with potential justices, to avoid issues similar to those that led to the impeachment in 2018.
“This is an interesting time in history, where you really are voting for the majority of the court in this race,” Raynes said. “There’s no more chances in November. I like to remind people of that.”
Tabit finished in third place in the 2018 special election, just behind Armstead and Jenkins in total votes. She said she feels like her message resonated in 2018. She also said the court has increased outreach and accountability to the public in the two years since the election.
Tabit breaks down her message into a single statement: The state’s judicial system needs to be effective, accessible and accountable from the top down, meaning all people are treated equally under the law.
“The court is bigger than the sum of its parts, but it is an institution,” Tabit said. “It has withstood and will withstand, and it will continue into generations. That’s why it’s important to put the right people in these positions. This is an historic vote for our Supreme Court. You’re electing three out of five judges. That’s a majority. You always have to be thoughtful about who you’re putting into these positions, because it’s a 12-year term.”
Wooton has an extensive legislative background, serving 14 years in the House of Delegates and 10 years in the state Senate, where he served as Judiciary Committee chairman.
Wooton otherwise has been in private practice in Beckley, and worked as an assistant prosecutor early in his career.
Wooton said it’s been his lifelong ambition to be on the court, and he wants to make the court more transparent and allow it to be more accessible. He said he supports the continued establishment of an electronic filing system for the court system, but he hopes the state would seek more input from circuit clerks, who would have to make the system function.
Wooton said he is hopeful more people will engage in the election but that motivating people to vote is one of the biggest challenges of this election cycle.
“The Supreme Court is one of three branches of government, and a lot of people don’t understand its workings,” Wooton said. “It has enormous impact on the lives of ordinary West Virginians. ... There are innumerable ways that the life support of the people is impacted by the judicial system, and that ultimately means the Supreme Court.”
The Division 3 election is the special election for the last four years of Loughry’s term.
Justice John Hutchison is seeking formal election to the seat after being appointed by the governor at the end of 2018.
He is in the race with Jackson Circuit Judge Lora Dyer and Charleston attorney Bill Schwartz.
Dyer was not available for comment for this report.
Schwartz sought election to the court in 2018, and he also unsuccessfully challenged Justice’s appointment of Jenkins and Armstead to the court that year.
To motivate people to engage in the 2020 Supreme Court election, Hutchison harkens back to trials he presided over in Raleigh County Circuit Court for 23 years, where he said he often would tell jurors that Americans have two responsibilities: to vote and serve on jury duty.
“This is critical,” Hutchison said. “We’re in a very difficult time. We’re starting to emerge, at least on the court side, into what I would consider to be a brighter day, and we need to make sure that transition continues, and you need good people. ... It’s critical that hard-working, well-reasoned, dedicated people are elected.”
As for Schwartz, he said he wants to make sure Supreme Court justices aren’t beholden to special interests, saying he largely has spent his own money for his campaign.
Schwartz said he was upset in 2018 and wanted to see change on the court. Now, he said, even though he no longer is upset, he still wants to see change on the court, calling himself “a taxpayer among the robes.”
Schwartz said that, on a national level, West Virginia still has a black eye from the 2018 impeachment, and he worries that the lack of contested races in the presidential primary, paired with the COVID-19 pandemic, might hamper voter participation for judicial races.
“The Supreme Court justices are going to be picked now,” Schwartz said. “They’re going to be the ones who are going to decide the direction of this state. They’re the ones who are going to decide whether what the Legislature passes will be valid law or not. Not to recognize that and not to recognize what we’ve been through over the last several years would be a mistake.”