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Quick decision: Benjamin, Wooten to get public financing money

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Both Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin and candidate Bill Wooten will be eligible for public campaign financing following a quick decision from the temporary justices sitting as the state Supreme Court Wednesday.

Five temporary justices, who are either sitting or senior status circuit judges, heard two hours of arguments earlier Wednesday on the controversy involving the state’s public campaign financing program and whether Benjamin and Wooten should be eligible for up to a $500,000 for their campaigns.

MORE Read Benjamin order here

Supreme candidate Beth Walker, who is not a public financing candidate, argued both both missed deadlines and shouldn’t get the money. The State Election Commission ruled in favor of Benjamin and Wooten but on appeal a pair of circuit judges agreed with Walker putting the cases before the Supreme Court. The Court issued orders, reversing the lower court rulings, approximately two hours after Wednesday’s hearing concluded.

The Court explained the quick nature of its decision:

“Recognizing the significance of election issues to the State of West Virginia and its
citizens and given the parties’ request for accelerated consideration and resolution of this matter
as it relates to the upcoming election, the Court issues its decision through this order with an
opinion to follow in due course.”

The opinions are expected to further explain why the Court made the decisions it did. There was little or no explanation Wednesday afternoon.

MORE Read Wooten order here

During the two-hour hearing, SEC attorney Spencer Elliot argued the SEC has some wiggle room when it comes to deadlines for the program.

“it was a procedural technicality,” Elliot said. “And the commission viewed its charge with it being vested with the discretion to look behind pure procedure and look to the content of what was being presented for campaign financing.”

But a deadline is a deadline and there’s no room for discretion in state code, according to Walker’s attorney Thomas Ryan.

“That’s not what the statute says. There’s not the discretion vested in the statute,” Ryan argued.

Deadlines are important for things like filing for office, Wooten attorney Bob Bastress argued, but there’s more leeway when it comes to things like filing financial disclosures by candidates.

The attorneys involved Wednesday also argued about the 580 qualifying contributions Benjamin submitted and whether or not an electronic signature on some of those should be accepted.

All four members of the state Supreme Court recused themselves from Wednesday’s arguments because they serve with Benjamin. The Court appointed senior status judge Thomas Keadle as acting chief justice who then appointed four temporary justices including Fayette County Circuit Judge John Hatcher, Brooke County Circuit Court James Mazzone, Jackson County Circuit Judge Thomas Evans and Senior Status Judge James Holliday.

The May 10 election is six weeks from Tuesday. A year-old state law makes all judicial elections in West Virginia non-partisan with one election day.

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