CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Twelve years after what turned into one of the most expensive and nastiest judicial campaigns in U.S. history, West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin is seeking re-election in a campaign that has come with a much different tone so far.
“My record is who I am,” Justice Benjamin said during a recent interview with MetroNews. “We took a very different turn with my election and that’s the turn and that’s the direction that I believe we should continue.”
That direction, he said, is toward more “stability and predictability” within the courts.
“We should be umpires. We should call balls and strikes and we should never call them before the pitch is even made. That’s another way of saying, ‘Courts shouldn’t be pro-this or pro-that,'” he said of his conservative judicial philosophy.
Developing policy, in Benjamin’s view, is the work of lawmakers, not judges.
For the first time, West Virginia voters will elect their judges on nonpartisan ballots during the May 10 primary election.
“The nonpartisan makes absolute sense. Politics have no place in judging cases. Politics have no place in administering justice,” Benjamin said. “The people of West Virginia want courts that are independent. They want courts that they know are fair.”
Benjamin is one of the two Supreme Court candidates who qualified for 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.
Without such an option, Benjamin told MetroNews he either would have run without seeking contributions or possibly would not have sought re-election at all.
“I made the decision last spring that I was uncomfortable with the traditional system and I just decided I wasn’t going to go that route,” he said.
“From a personal standpoint, I made the decision I could not judge cases and then know that my campaign committee was going to those very same people appearing in front of me, whether they be lawyers or clients of the lawyers, and asking for money.”
Discussions of public financing options for judges intensified after the 2004 Supreme Court race, when more than $5 million was spent by the candidates — including Benjamin — along with their supporters and opponents.
Upwards of $3 million of that total came from former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship’s organization, And For the Sake of the Kids, which targeted then Justice Warren McGraw, brother to Darrell McGraw, a former justice and former longtime West Virginia attorney general who is again seeking a seat on the Supreme Court this year.
Outside interests, Benjamin said, “drowned out the candidates” that year.
During what was a partisan election, Benjamin became the first Republican elected to the West Virginia Supreme Court is more than 80 years.
Once seated, he opted not to recuse himself from the Caperton v. Massey case and twice voted with the majority to overturn a $50 million jury award in the case from Hugh Caperton, president of Harman Coal, who had claimed Massey destroyed Harman.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2009 Benjamin should not hear the case because of a “serious risk of actual bias — based on objective and reasonable perceptions — when a person with a personal stake in a particular case had a significant and disproportinate influence in placing the judge on the case by raising funds or directing the judge’s election campaign when the case was pending or imminent.”
It was an important ruling for judicial disqualifications, Benjamin said, “Judges now can look at things beyond their control in whether they believe they should disqualify or not.”
For his re-election bid, Benjamin said the focus had largely stayed on the issues, at least as of three weeks before the election. “I think we all are hoping that this is how we do things,” he said, touting his roles in the creation of West Virginia’s drug courts, business courts and access to justice programs.
When it comes to being on the ballot with another McGraw, Benjamin pointed to their individual records. Thus far, each has served one term on the Supreme Court.
“If they’re more comfortable with a Court that goes with the way Justice McGraw judged when he was a justice from 1977 to 1988, then that’s the choice that the voters get to make because it is their Court,” he said.
“If they’re comfortable with the direction we’ve taken the Court in the last 12 years and the direction that I want to continue taking the Court, then I would appreciate their vote because that’s where I want to go.”
Benjamin served as chief justice in 2009 and again in 2013.
Prior to beginning his 12 year term on the state Supreme Court in Jan. 2005, Benjamin worked as principal attorney with Robinson and McElwee in Charleston.
This story is part of a series on the Supreme Court candidates ahead of the West Virginia primary election on May 10. Early voting begins on Wednesday, April 27.
All of the judicial races in West Virginia will be at the end of the primary ballots and the winners will begin their terms in the New Year.
“The court system is the people’s court system and it works best when everyone participates in the selection of judges,” Benjamin said. “May 10 is a very important day for West Virginia.”
In addition to Justice Benjamin and McGraw, the other candidates are Beth Walker, a Morgantown attorney, Wayne King, an attorney from Clay County and Bill Wooton, a former longtime state attorney and Beckley attorney.