CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The second forum regarding this year’s West Virginia Supreme Court races took place Thursday at the state Culture Center, with the issue of restoring respect in the court hanging overhead.
The nine candidates spoke about what they would bring to the high court if elected. The candidates are vying for the seat of retired Justice Robin Davis, who stepped aside following the House of Delegates’ vote to impeach her from the bench.
The winner will serve the remainder of Davis’ term, which is set to expire in January 2025.
“I want to restore honesty, integrity, fiscal responsibility and puts some transparency back into the Supreme Court,” Putnam County attorney Brenden Long said. “If elected by the voters of West Virginia, I will be a humble public servant.”
Kanawha County attorney Dennise Renne Smith said the court is at a crossroads.
“It is vitally important that we protect the integrity of the court and that we protect the court from political influence and from any factors that would lead the public to believe that they cannot have a fair and impartial hearing before the court,” she said. “That is a vital aspect to our democracy, and when you have of a loss of a trust in this, you will have a loss of faith in democracy.”
Boone County Circuit Court Judge William Thompson pointed to his experience on the bench as a needed attribute for the court given recent events.
“We need people who have experience to do this,” he said. “We need people who know what they’re doing. This is an important decision. This is one of the most important positions in state government.”
Robert Frank, an attorney from Greenbrier County, said the public needs to be confident in the court and its opinions for the state to operate efficiently.
“Our system requires that society can rely on them to be fair and open. Our system of justice requires that the people who serve on it be qualified,” he said.
Bill Schwartz, a Kanawha County attorney, recalled going to a class reunion at his alma mater, Washington & Lee University, and being joshed about the Supreme Court news.
“Some guy from Texas pointed at me back in April and said, ‘Hey, Schwartz. How many justices are going to get indicted this year?'” he said. “That cuts me like a knife. It was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life.”
Schwartz unsuccessfully challenged the appointments of former U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins and House of Delegates Speaker Tim Armstead to the court.
“He meant, ‘Bill Schwartz, you’re not a real lawyer from a real state with a real court.’ And that’s a guy from Texas,” he added. “They knew that in April.”
Jenkins, who began serving on the court this month, pointed to his past experience in public office as evidence he understands what concerns the public.
“I’ve stood for election. I’ve listened to voters. I’ve been connected to the people, listening, understanding their needs,” he said. “I think that is part of the problem of the court that has been out of touch with what the people of West Virginia want and expect and their priorities.”
Judge Jim Douglas, who sits on the Kanawha Circuit Family Court, criticized Justice and Armstead, as well as suspended Justice Allen Loughry and Justice Beth Walker, contrasting their resumes to his own.
“We have two appointed justices on the Supreme Court that have never had divorce cases as far as I know. Or a family law case, as far as I know,” he said. “There is one suspended justice that never had a family law case or a divorce case or a child custody case. There is one justice that has not had a family case.”
Much like Jenkins, Jeff Kessler knows the political realm well; he served in the West Virginia Senate for more than 19 years, including over four years as president of the Senate.
“I’ve known how to fix crises in the past. I’ve done. My experience in the Legislature has shown that I can do that through medical malpractice, worker’s compensation crisis and even the transition after Sen. (Robert) Byrd died,” he said. “I stepped up and solved those issues, and will solve the crisis in the court system as well.”
Wheeling attorney Marty Sheehan said his record, including being named one of the top criminal lawyers in the state by the National Academy of Criminal Defense Lawyers, is evidence of the kind of justice he’ll be if elected.
“The way you develop integrity in a court is you develop integrity in the people,” he said.
MetroNews was a sponsor of both forums held this week.