Attorney Beth Walker is expected to formally announce next week that she’s running for the West Virginia state Supreme Court in 2016.  That seat is currently held by Justice Brent Benjamin, who is running for re-election to a second term.

Benjamin is a Republican and Walker ran unsuccessfully for the Supreme Court in 2008 as a Republican, but because of a change by the West Virginia Legislature earlier this year, all judicial elections starting in 2016 will be non-partisan.  Just like the local school board races, the election will be on Primary Election day.

Walker, who lives in Morgantown and serves as Associate General Counsel for the West Virginia United Health System, says she’s been thinking about a run for several months.

“I am giving serious consideration to becoming a candidate for Justice of the Supreme Court of Appeals in 2016,” she told me in an email.  “I plan to announce my decision publicly very soon.”

Walker narrowly missed capturing one of the two seats of the five-member court that were up in 2008.  Democrat Menis Ketchum led the ticket with 355,778 votes, followed by Democrat Margaret Workman at 336,346, with Walker finishing just 6,951 votes behind Workman—a difference of less than one percent.

Walker’s entry reveals a significant shift in the political dynamic since Benjamin ran successfully for his first 12-year term in 2004.  Benjamin was an underdog to Democrat incumbent Warren McGraw until CALA (Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse) and Don Blankenship’s “And for the Sake of the Kids” PAC stepped in.

Then-Massey Energy CEO Blankenship hired political consultant Greg Thomas to run the PAC.  It raised and spent $3.7 million in ads criticizing McGraw and supporting Benjamin.

Blankenship has larger concerns now with his upcoming federal trial on charges related to the UBB disaster, but Thomas is more involved than ever in West Virginia politics.  However, Thomas and CALA have shifted their support away from Benjamin in favor of Walker, believing Benjamin did not turn out to be what they expected.

CALA executive director Roman Stauffer said, “Unfortunately, Justice Brent Benjamin has cast a series of votes that have contributed to our state’s Judicial Hellhole status.  It’s not surprising that the personal injury lawyers are considering supporting his campaign.”

CALA has already chronicled a list of several significant Supreme Court decisions where it believes Benjamin was on the wrong side.

A Benjamin representative sees the landscape differently.  Steve Cohen (notably, a former executive director of CALA himself) worked on the 2004 Benjamin campaign and is advising him again in this next election.  He says Benjamin is exactly what a justice should be.

“He is regarded across the spectrum as a fair Justice,” Cohen told me.  “He’s not in the tank for any particular agenda other than justice.”

Cohen also countered the CALA allegation that Benjamin has gone off the pro-business reservation by pointing out that the West Virginia Record, a publication owned by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, published an editorial last April saying Benjamin “deserves another 12-year term.”

Meanwhile, Walker says while she has the utmost respect for Benjamin and the other four Justices, “If I run, it will reflect my conservative vision of the role of a Justice on the Supreme Court.”

Walker’s entry represents a substantial challenge to the incumbent Benjamin. However, there’s still a long way to go, and we’ve yet to hear from the trial attorneys who make up the influential West Virginia Association for Justice.

The race for Governor is the top political attraction in 2016, but the contest for a single seat on the powerful state Supreme Court is not far behind.

 

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