CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A self-described “small town lawyer” is looking to move up to West Virginia’s highest court. Bill Wooton, a Beckley attorney and former longtime state lawmaker, is one of five candidates running for a seat on the state Supreme Court in May’s nonpartisan judicial election.
“I think all of us have an obligation to do what we can to improve our state and our community and I think this opportunity, for me, is a chance where I can be of the most service,” Wooton said during a recent interview with MetroNews, part of a series of candidate profiles.
“I think the duty of a Supreme Court judge is to see that the law is fairly applied,” he said of the job he’s seeking for the next 12 years.
“As a Supreme Court justice, I would certainly be mindful that public policy is not my province, it’s the province of the Legislature, so I would be see my role, in simple terms, as calling balls and strikes.”
A retired colonel, Wooton, 72, served for more than 30 years with the U.S. Army Reserve and West Virginia National Guard. In addition to his ongoing private legal work in Raleigh County, his resume also includes work as assistant West Virginia attorney general and assistant Raleigh County prosecuting attorney.
Wooton knows the work of the Legislature well after serving at the State Capitol for 26 years.
He had three stints in the state House of Delegates — 1976-1986, 1988-1990 and 2008-2010 — that included time as House Majority Leader. In the state Senate, he served from 1990-2000 and was chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, making him “the longest-serving judiciary chair” on record, according to Wooton.
“I ran as a Democrat all those years and I remain a Democrat,” Wooton told MetroNews.
For the first time, West Virginia’s judges will be elected in May on nonpartisan ballots.
“I don’t know that that means that much,” Wooton said. “The code of the judicial responsibility that governs judges and judicial candidates was in effect when it was a partisan election and, even then, you could not get into partisan politics.”
While the content of the campaign is the same, the main issue, in his view, will be whether most voters understand that the May results of the judicial races are final.
“I’m scared to death they don’t,” he said. “Every time you have a major change, it’s take a long time for people to become accustomed to it. I’ve seen it happen in other instances. I think people will go to the polls in November and be surprised that there are no magistrates and judges on the ballot.”
Wooton said he does not think West Virginia currently needs an intermediate court of appeals and believes decisions on the disqualification of judges for “appearances of bias” should be left to the elected judges involved, relying on their integrity.
If elected, he plans to be neither a liberal, nor conservative justice.
“I would think that neither label would be appropriate. Of course, I don’t like labels anyway, but to the extent people have chosen to apply labels, I think most people would consider me relatively moderate,” Wooton said.
“One thing about being relatively moderate in partisan elections is, no one gets excited for a moderate. That makes it tough.”
Though he has won and lost many elections over the years, the latest being a 2012 defeat for a House seat, this is his first run for Supreme Court.
Wooton qualified for and is using more than $500,000 in public funding for his campaign from the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals Public Financing Program, administered through the State Election Commission.
“It gives people like me or other candidates the ability to not be asking directly for money from potential litigants or lawyers who would appear,” Wooton said of his reasons for seeking public monies for his campaign, what he called “a good law.”
“No one contributes to any kind of political campaign, really in any significant way, unless they intend to have some influence — legislative races, governors races — that’s just practical common sense. You hate to say it, but that’s what happens.”
Public financing, he argued, removes bias possibilities.
Current Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin, who was elected as a Republican in 2004, is also utilizing the public financing option this year. Beth Walker, a Morgantown attorney and Supreme Court candidate, unsuccessfully challenged Wooton and Justice Benjamin’s qualifications for that funding.
In addition to Wooton, Benjamin and Walker, the other Supreme Court candidates are Wayne King, a Clay County attorney and Darrell McGraw, a former Supreme Court justice and former longtime West Virginia attorney general.
All of the candidates have been traveling throughout West Virginia in the final weeks before the May 10th primary and nonpartisan judicial election.
“I have been to Brooke and Hancock and Mingo and Mercer and Cabell and Jefferson and Berkeley and all points in between,” Wooton said. “I’ve enjoyed the campaign. I look forward to the fact that it’s final and over come May 10th. I certainly hope that I win, but it’s nice to not have to do another election.”
The term of the person elected in the May Supreme Court race will continue through 2029.
The last day to register to vote is April 19. Early voting begins on April 27.