Two incumbents and a former lawmaker were leading in the state’s three Supreme Court races late Tuesday.
With nearly half of precincts reporting, Chief Justice Tim Armstead, former lawmaker and Beckley lawyer Bill Wooton and Justice John Hutchison were winning their respective races.
Preliminary Kanawha County results that had not been reported to the secretary of state’s website at press time put Kanawha Circuit Judge Joanna Tabit ahead of Wooton in Kanawha by slightly less than 1,700 votes in the Division 2 race. But she still trailed Wooton statewide.
Leaders in the races in the other two divisions were the same when the available results from Kanawha County were added in.
According to the secretary of state’s website, in Division 1, Armstead, of Elkview, had 77,291 votes, followed by former Justice Richard Neely of Charleston with 72,709 votes. Marshall Circuit Judge David Hummel was in third with 36,568 votes.
Armstead wasn’t available for comment Tuesday evening and Neely declined to comment amid the uncertain results.
Wooton had 66,770 votes at deadline, and Tabit had 50,451 votes. Putnam Assistant Prosecutor Kris Raynes was in third place with 38,966 votes, and Kanawha Family Judge Jim Douglas had 34,194 votes, according to the secretary of state’s website.
The Division 1 and Division 2 seats were for 12-year terms that will end in 2032.
The Division 3 race, a special election to finish the term vacated by former Justice Allen Loughry, was being paced by Hutchison with 80,166 votes, followed by Jackson Circuit Judge Lora Dyer with 61,679 votes and Charleston lawyer Bill Schwartz with 39,414 votes.
Voters were tasked with electing three people to the five-justice court in 2020, thanks, in part, to 2-year-old ripples from the 2018 impeachment of the state Supreme Court.
Loughry resigned from the court in November 2018 after he was impeached by the West Virginia House of Delegates and before he was sentenced to 24 months in federal prison for wire fraud and lying to federal investigators.
Tuesday evening, Tabit sat in her Charleston apartment with family and friends. She said she was trying to be pragmatic and not put herself in the justice seat before the votes were completely counted.
Tabit, of Charleston, was appointed circuit judge in 2014 by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to replace the retired Paul Zakaib. Kanawha voters returned her to the bench in 2016.
She ran for Supreme Court during special elections in 2018 and finished third behind Chief Justice Armstead and Justice Evan Jenkins.
Tabit said both campaign cycles were unusual, but she felt grateful to all the West Virginians she’d interacted with while seeking a spot on the Supreme Court.
“I ran my first statewide race in a fractured field in a compressed election cycle of three months, and we ran this one in a pandemic,” Tabit said. “For one thing, I was glad, and I think it was important, that if you know you’re committed to doing something that you go out and do it early because we were running this race for about 10 months before the pandemic hit, so we were able to go out and meet with people.”
Wooton on Tuesday also was holding his breath for election results saying he thought everyone in the Division 2 race ran an aggressive but positive campaign.
Wooton has an extensive legislative background, serving 14 years in the House of Delegates and 10 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.
Hutchison was with friends and supporters Tuesday night, and he said he still was experiencing election night nerves.
“The people in West Virginia are looking for somebody to lead this court forward, and there’s a little bit of disagreement among voters of who that ought to be,” Hutchison said.
Justices, circuit and family judges and magistrates are elected in non-partisan races, meaning their political parties aren’t listed on the ballot. Without party affiliation as part of the voting process, there’s no party nomination to the process of electing a Supreme Court justice in West Virginia.
That means all judicial races in the state are decided during the primary election.
The people who win the Division 1 and Division 2 races will be sworn in in January because they were elected for terms that were set to expire by law in 2020.
If Hutchison doesn’t win his race, the person who does win will be sworn in as soon as possible, since the Division 3 race is for an unexpired term. That person’s term will be up for election in 2024.