SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. (Legal Newsline) - The three candidates for the West Virginia Supreme Court spoke about issues facing the court Oct. 22 in a forum at Shepherd University's Frank Arts Center.
Democrat Margaret Workman stressed her previous experience as a justice, Democrat Menis Ketchum preached reform in court administration and judicial elections and Republican Beth Walker expressed her urge to repair the court's reputation.
The three are seeking two open spots on the court that will be vacated by justices Spike Maynard and Larry Starcher. The forum aired on WEPM 1340-AM of Martinsburg.
Questions regarding issues like judicial recusal and the court's workload were posed to the trio, which joked about the amount of forums in which they have participated together. Workman is a former justice, Ketchum is a Huntington attorney and Walker is a Charleston attorney.
The following is a collection of statements from each of the candidates:
-"I'm running because I felt our Supreme Court was hurting the business climate of this state, and by hurting the business climate of this state it was hurting the working men in West Virginia."
-"There has been, for some time, a murmuring among the lawyers that our Supreme Court favored certain lawyers, and if you wanted to win in the Supreme Court you better hire certain a certain lawyer, and that hurts the business climate in this state."
-"The Fletcher case is the worst case for business and the business climate and the employment of workers of this state in my memory. It, in fact, is on the verge of running one of the few manufacturers in Huntington, W.Va., out of business.
"(J.H. Fletcher & Co. is) required to make (roof bolts used in underground mines) by the federal government a specific way. By law, by regulation, they can make them no other way. Well, don't you know there's a class action down in Mingo County against Fletcher Mining saying, 'We know you gotta make them a certain way, but you could've made them better.'
"And the judge in Mingo County said, 'This is ridiculous,' and he dismissed it. And the class action lawyers appealed it to the West Virginia Supreme Court, and you know what they did? They reinstated it and said, 'Yep. You had to make it a certain way -- the federal government required it -- but maybe you could've made it better, so go ahead and sue them.'"
-"Our court will just not stop frivolous lawsuits, like the Fletcher Mining case. It just takes a court that is willing to sit up there and divorce itself from the social scene, divorce itself from public-speaking appearances, divorce itself from politics and insulate themselves like the Supreme Court of Appeals of the United States and get back to hearing citizens' appeals."
-"Yes, we do need an intermediate court of appeals. I think we need four (courts of error) -- one in the Northern Panhandle, one in the Eastern Panhandle, one in Greenbrier County or that area and one in Charleston."
-"The problem comes when somebody requests you recuse yourself and you don't. What should we do? We should set up an independent commission, a permanent commission, that will make decisions if a judge will not recuse himself or herself."
-"So I suggested two things: One is a merit selection system with an election component, and here's how it works and a lot of states use it. You have a commission that selects qualified judges, and they submit it to the governor and the legislature and they select the judge... And then in three years that judge stands for election by himself or herself and is voted up or down. And it stands for election every five years thereafter.
"The other one... is voluntary public financing like they have in North Carolina, which is a voluntary public financing system that doesn't cost the State money and under that system you have elections just like now, except the money's not spent by the candidates."
-"We've allowed our courts system, in particular the Supreme Court, to get awfully bogged down by politics, awfully bogged down by partisanship and I'd like to change that."
-"I have a couple of (recusal) rules I will follow and, one, if I have relationships that might be perceived as presenting a problem, I'll disclose those relationships to the parties before court and see if they have an objection I'd need to consider.
"And, two, and more importantly, if I feel like whether it's a friend, former business relationship or whatever it might be, if I feel like it's going to affect the way I decide a case I will recuse myself because I only want to hear cases I can be completely confident I can render a decision in an unbiased way."
-"I haven't been particularly political. I never aspired to run for political office, but I am sincerely concerned about the future of our states."
-"I want just very much to repair the reputation of our court system by not making activist decisions with the end in mind, but rather just by going back to the job of not trying to land your name in the newspaper."
-"When we start talking about tort reform, when we start talking about caps on damages, when we start talking about whether certain cases should automatically be reviewed by the supreme court, that is all squarely in the realm of the legislature.
"That is a policy-making function, and whether I think it is a good idea or not, it doesn't matter if I'm a justice of the supreme court because my job is the process of trying to restore public confidence in our court system and trying to create a place where businesses are not apprehensive in investing and creating jobs and creating opportunities for all West Virginians."
-"My role as a justice will be, very simply, to rule based on the law -- to be mindful of the fact that the law in our state should not be wildly changing every time there are changes in the justices of the supreme court. There should be a certain stability and predictability because folks just want to know what rules are, and folks can then behave accordingly whether it's criminal law, whether it's laws as they apply to liability on premises or whether it's employment law. And I think a justice has to come into job understanding that their role is very limited and restraint is the better part of being a justice."
-"I think an intermediate appeals court would be a good thing, but personally I don't think it should be our highest priority. There are two much more pressing needs. We need more resources in the family courts system. Unfortunately, that's the aspect of our courts system that most West Virginians interface with.
"My second priority would be to establish a specialized court to handle Workers Compensation cases. I think there's a lot of special knowledge, specialized medical knowledge, that would be helpful in that arena. We need a court to handle those and free up the supreme court to really handle far more substantive issues than its handling now."
-"I've always said that there's no judge who's responsible who's not unmindful of (economic) ramifications. On the other hand, I firmly believe that the role of the judge is to follow the rule of the law.
-"I think sometimes if you decide if you're going to be a 'decider," as President Bush would say, of what the best economic consequences oughta be and you should make decisions according to if it's going to help or hurt one segment of society or the other, then you're stepping outside your proper role. The court system, the judicial branch, is not the policy-making branch of government."
-"Everyone in this state knows we have issues that have arisen, very serious consequential issues to the point where the West Virginia Supreme Court is being talked about all over the nation.
One of the reasons why I chose to run is that I have an 18-year record of spotless integrity and hard work and being fair to everyone, and I think I can go back to the court with my experience, my maturity and my ability to communicate well with others and calm that turmoil and restore the Supreme Court to the place it ought to occupy and the respect of the people of West Virginia."
-"Our family courts system needs help. We need more resources, we need better parent training for parents going through difficult, conflicting divorces so the children don't suffer."
-"I'm the only candidate in the race that has judicial experience, and I would submit that my in my past 18 years of judicial experience my reputation was that of being fair to everyone. I have an unblemished record of integrity, and I think, right now, the people of West Virginia are crying out for a sure feeling about the integrity and authenticity of the justices of the Supreme Court."
From Legal Newsline: Reach John O'Brien by e-mail at email@example.com.