CHARLESTON, W.Va. — While each of the nine candidates for the Division One seat of the West Virginia Supreme Court have different resumes and legal experiences, all of them agreed the integrity of the state’s high court is at stake this November.
The nine candidates participated in a two-hour forum Monday at the state Culture Center on why they are the best person for the seat. The winner would fill the remainder of the term of former Justice Menis Ketchum, set to expire January 2021.
Ketchum resigned from the court in July in light of the controversy surrounding court expenses and his personal use of state vehicles. He pleaded guilty to wire fraud in August.
“I think we need to bring back to the court integrity, honesty and, most of all, trust,” said Ronald Hatfield Jr., a Barboursville attorney. “We need to trust our Supreme Court justices because if we don’t trust the individual, then we don’t trust the decisions coming out of the court.”
Justice Tim Armstead currently serves in the seat previously occupied by Ketchum; he took the oath of office last month. He resigned from the House of Delegates and as speaker of the chamber in August and was appointed by Gov. Jim Justice to the bench.
“When I talk to the people of West Virginia and they talk to me about what they want to see change in the court, it is very important that they see honesty, integrity and fiscal responsibility,” he said. “And I believe I have the talents, the ability and the experience to bring those things to the court.”
Kanawha Circuit Judge Joanna Tabit said her vision for the high court is simple: it must be accountable, simple, effective and responsive to the state.
“I’m a judge, not a politician,” she said.”I ran for public office — first for the position of circuit court judge — because I wanted to improve life for all West Virginians and that’s why I’m running for Supreme Court.”
“Now more than ever, our court needs a proven, qualified judge. And I believe it’s critical for that person that’s elected for that office on the Supreme Court of Appeals possesses integrity, character and fairness to help restore the public faith and confidence in the judiciary, and to help lead the court in the next generation.”
Mark Hunt, a former member of the House of Delegates, noted it is challenging to trust a court and its opinions if it is embroiled in controversy regarding its practices.
“We’re here because there has been a misappropriation or perhaps a misuse of funds,” he said. “Anyone can come up here and tell you they’re going to serve you with integrity, they’re going to serve and not misuse funds, they’re going to serve with trust. But the only way to prove that is bad what you’ve done and what you’re going to do and the actions and who you are.”
In light of the impeachment of state Supreme Court justices, Berkeley County Judge Chris Wilkes said it is key for the entire judicial system to restored confidence with the public.
“There are over 250 good, honest judicial officers who go to work every day. Those are our magistrates, our family court judges and our circuit court judges that are all painted with that same brush,” he said.
Harry “Bo” Bruner Jr., a Charleston attorney, called this year’s impeachment and legal proceedings involving the court part of the “summer of discontent,” additionally stressing the importance of the Nov. 6 election.
“We’re not going to have a winter of despair. Good times are ahead of us, and all these candidates are good candidates. I believe I’m the best to do the job, to bring change to the court by leading by example,” he said.
“I’ve raised four kids. I know the value of the dollar. I know how to do budgeting, but that’s just part of the administrative role. Justice has to roll out of that court like a river, and only the voters can restore (it).”
Robert Carlton, a bankruptcy lawyer in Williamson, also touched on the power of the voter.
“You need to decide If they’re a little bit off the rocker or they’re the best in the world, then you need to make the decision,” Carlton told the audience. “Our liberty is at stake with appointed judges. You have, then, perhaps the governor making the decision for the judge who goes to jail. Obviously, that shouldn’t be and I’m not saying it happens, but that’s a possibility and it used to happen.”
Hiram “Buck” Lewis IV, who twice ran for state attorney general, said he is a “strict constitutionalist” and the court’s powers are limited by the state Constitution.
“I believe that we need a non-biased, non-partisan, fully 100 percent elected judiciary on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals,” he said. “I will work for you as hard as I can to see that vision come to fruition.”
Jeff Woods, a Nitro-based attorney, said the best person for the job has to reach out to others to ensure a job is done correctly, including access to electronic records.
“When God gives you a gift, if you don’t use it for somebody else, he’ll take it away from you. I want to be a dedicated person who is dedicated to this system,” he said. “We need a justice who is ready to dedicate himself to serving people.
A similar forum will be held Thursday night with the candidates for the Division 2 seat, including Justice Evan Jenkins. Jenkins, like Armstead, was appointed by Justice.
MetroNews is a sponsor of Monday’s event, as well as Thursday’s forum.