Supreme Court choices include circuit judge, family court judge, prosecutor and longtime legislator

The second Supreme Court seat on West Virginia ballots is a choice among a sitting circuit judge, a family court judge, a prosecutor and a longtime legislator.

They all agree the race is very important.

This is one of three seats up for the Supreme Court this year, which means shaping the majority of the five-member court for years to come. This is the second of two 12-year terms on the ballot.

“This is, in effect, voting for the majority of the court with a five-person court,” one of the candidates, Kris Raynes, an assistant prosecutor in Putnam County. “The people can definitely speak on which way they want it to swing.”

Another candidate, lawyer and longtime legislator Bill Wooton, echoed that.

“With a five member court, you can change the majority for this election,” Wooton said.

And because judicial races are nonpartisan in West Virginia, voters only get one shot at deciding on Election Day, June 9.

“This election cannot be overstated,” said another candidate, Jim Douglas, a Kanawha Family Court judge.

“There’s two 12-year terms at stake here. That could set the law for the next decade on.”

Another of the candidates, Kanawha Circuit Judge Joanna Tabit, agreed on that point.

“Let’s talk about it as a whole and look at it as, you’re electing a majority of the court,” Tabit said, noting that the sum of the three terms on the ballot equates to 28 years. “That’s an entire generation of jurisprudence, which highlights how historically important this election is.

“I can’t overstate that and why it’s important to put people in there who have experience, character and energy to lead the court into the next generation.”

MORE: Supreme Court Division 1 race pits chief justice vs earlier chief justice vs circuit judge

Candidates for Supreme Court Division 2

This is a 12-year term with no incumbent running. Justice Margaret Workman opted not to run again after completing her second full term.

Jim Douglas

Douglas has been a family court judge in Kanawha County since 2016 and spent many years in private practice before that.

He ran for Supreme Court two years ago after Justice Robin Davis resigned. Douglas finished fourth out of 10 candidates.

Douglas says his experience with family court sets him apart. He noted that much of what winds up being appealed in the courts system constitutes domestic relations issues involving grandparents, child custody issues or abuse and neglect cases.

“It’s unfortunate that we have never had a family court judge or someone with a substantial family court background on the Supreme Court of Appeals,” Douglas said in a telephone interview.

“I think it would be a tragedy to go into the next decade and not have anybody on there who has had that family law experience. Everybody has to go through some kind of family law experience at some point in their life.”

Douglas calls his approach a kitchen table campaign, envisioning people pouring a morning cup of coffee and not worried about mass tort litigation or whether an intermediate appeals court should be established.

“What people are sitting around those tables in West Virginia thinking every day, is they’re worried about whether they’re going to see that little grandchild. That single mother is worried about child support. That domestic violence victim is worried about what’s next. That’s what I bring to their kitchen table.”

Joanna Tabit

Tabit has been a Kanawha Circuit judge since 2014 and was in private practice before that.

Tabit also ran for Supreme Court in 2018 for the seat that opened when Justice Menis Ketchum resigned. She finished second out of 10 candidates, gaining the most votes of anyone out of the running.

“That was my first statewide race. We can in a close second to the eventual winner,” Tabit said over the telephone. “We have been continually running since August of 2018, really. So I hope that hard work will pay off in June.”

In the current race, she has been endorsed by the political action committees of both the state Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO, among a variety of groups.

“That’s an indication those entities and their membership view me as being fair and thoughtful in the cases I’ve decided as a circuit judge,” she said.

Tabit said her experience as a circuit judge in the state’s most populous county would be valuable as a justice.

“Because now more than ever our court needs proven, qualified judges,” she said. “We have the breadth and the volume of work, particularly in Kanawha County.”

Kris Raynes

Raynes is an assistant prosecutor in Putnam County, where she handles felony cases ranging from controlled substances offenses to first degree murder cases. Her specialty is prosecuting the majority of the child sexual abuse cases in the office.

“I’ve always kind of wanted to head to the judiciary after a career in prosecution. I realized this was my 20th year in prosecution. Kind of crept up on me a little bit,” Raynes said over the phone.

The time as a prosecutor, she said, translates into experience with criminal cases and abuse and neglect cases.

“I’m familiar with the two largest amounts of cases that the court will hear on the bench. That’s where I feel I have a pretty strong background there,” she said.

Judicial candidates aren’t allowed to describe how they would rule in particular cases. Raynes points people to her campaign website, which identifies her as a conservative. She regards former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia as a role model.

“What he believed was, he was strong in separation of powers. He was strong in the court’s role in the arbiter of the law, not to create the law,” Raynes said.

“The constitution is the same today as it was yesterday and it will be tomorrow because it needs to be a bedrock for citizens to know what their rights are and where they stand in the rule of law. I wouldn’t be an activist judge, won’t legislate from the bench.”

Bill Wooton

Wooton was a mainstay in West Virginia’s Legislature.

He served in the House of Delegates from 1976 to 1986, a period in which he rose to majority leader, and from 1988 to 1990. Then he served in the Senate from 1990 to 2000. He served again in the House from 2008 to 2010.

Wooton has been in private practice at a Beckley law firm for many years. He was a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves and served in the National Gaurd.

Wooton ran for the Supreme Court in 2016. He came in third in a five-candidate race that was won by current Justice Beth Walker.

“I thought I’d win,” Wooton said over the phone last week.

But with three seats up this year — this one without an incumbent running — Wooton decided he still had a chance.

“I’m the only candidate of the four who is a veteran. I’m the only one that doesn’t live and work in the Kanawha County metropolitan area, and I’m the only one not currently on the public payroll,” he said.

Wooton says his strength is his many years in private practice.

“I think I’ve been involved in just about every proceeding that a lawyer can be involved with in West Virginia,” he said. “I think my experience is broader than any of the other candidates. Like most small town lawyers, you kind of take what comes in the door.”

But he said his experience in the Legislature gives him appreciation for the role each branch should play.

“The court has no function in terms of executing public policy and is not supposed to be involved in making public policy,” he said. “That’s something that is ingrained in you if you have served in the Legislature.

“One analogy is my job would be to call balls and strikes — on an issue that’s challenged, to see that the law was correctly applied, was fairly applied and that it doesn’t violate the Constitution.”

Inspirations

Two of the candidates say they’ve drawn inspiration from the retiring incumbent.

Margaret Workman

Justice Margaret Workman became the first woman elected to the court and the first woman elected to statewide office in West Virginia in 1988.

She served a full term until 2000, when she returned to private practice. Workman then ran again for the Supreme Court in 2008 and won election again.

Workman has served as chief justice five times.

“It would be meaningful to me, personally, to succeed Justice Worknan,” Tabit said. “I can tell you I would not be a lawyer if not for her.”

Tabit recalled being home between her junior and senior year of college and seeing that then-Gov. Jay Rockefeller had appointed Workman to a seat on Kanawha Circuit Court.

“I thought what the heck. I was toying around with law school,” Tabit said.

So Tabit, who did not previously know Workman, sent a letter with a pitch “She wouldn’t have to pay me if she’d let me schlep around her office.”

“I came in for an interview and she said ‘Sure, we can do that,'” Tabit said.

“She has been a lifelong friend and mentor since.”

Raynes volunteered that she was also influenced by Workman.

Raynes said her mother worked for many years as an administrative assistant at the court. When Raynes was a freshman in high school, she said, her mother took her to see Workman’s 1989 investiture ceremony as a new Supreme Court justice.

“I’m trying to maybe fill her shoes, or maybe come full circle. I definitely respect her for being the first woman on the court,” she said.  “Hopefully I can see her and wish her well on her way out.”

Raynes noted that Workman was among the justices who faced impeachment charges in the Legislature in 2018.

One charge was an overriding maladministration allegation that the justices did not hold each other accountable. Two more charges had to do with the overpayment of senior status judges.

But Workman challenged the impeachment process in the court system and won.

“She’s going out a victor too. She challenged that impeachment process and she won,” Raynes said. “She has a lot to be proud of over her long career.”

Wooton said he has drawn inspiration from a different judge, John Field, who served for many years as a U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of West Virginia and then as a U.S. Circuit Judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

.”Just an extremely well-regarded United States District Judge,” Wooton said.

Wooton served as a law clerk for Field before becoming a prosecutor for a few years.

“He was just regarded as the best you could be,” Wooton said.

Vision for the court 

After the impeachment saga in 2018, current members of the Supreme Court have emphasized fiscal restraint and greater transparency.

But the current candidates say more healing needs to take place.

“Nothing has really changed. Like, you never got a full catharsis, a cleansing of the Supreme Court,” Douglas said. “I feel an obligation. I feel that obligation to offer myself to do that. That obligation is overriding.”

Although West Virginia voters approved a constitutional amendment giving the Legislature greater oversight of the judicial system’s budget, Douglas said justices should offer a budget expanding areas of emphasis.

Examples might include restoring funding for guardians ad litem who represent a child’s interest in cases, proposing more money for domestic violence protection or funding day care centers where family court meets.

“Being able to present your budget, you can put a lot of things in the line items that it would be hard for the Legislature to reject,” Douglas said.

Douglas would also like to see more court visits in West Virginia’s 55 counties.

“Why can’t the Supreme Court hold arguments each year in two or three of those places?” he asked. “People would get to see who the Supreme Court justices are and what they look like.”

Raynes describes herself as a “hard-core rules person.”

“I think I can help turn around the court from the problems it had a couple of years ago to make it accountable to its citizens,” she said.

Raynes added, “It started to turn around with Chief Justice Walker and has continued to turn around with Chief Justice Armstead. They’ve really done their level best to try to address the concerns that came out of that judicial implosion.”

She also credits voters with giving the Legislature more oversight of the court system’s budget.

“Checks and balances work,” she said. “That’s too much power in one branch of government. I think the voters took a huge step in passing that constitutional amendment.”

She said drug and treatment courts have been successful, but she said more followup such as jobs skills counseling would help.

“If we can get addicts to, first of all, treat themselves and change their lives, I think that will have a waterfall effect on the abuse and neglect problem in our state,” Raynes said.

Tabit would like to see continued evolution of family treatment courts.

“You’re treating the disease, and that’s what we need to be focused on,” she said. “Get families back together and get people gainfully employed and make them healthy members of society.”

She said the Supreme Court has steadied itself over the past year and a half, and she would like to see that continue.

“I think the court has done a lot in the last 18 months to instill public faith and confidence in the juduciary. Is there more to be done? Sure,” she said.

“I think courts should be fair, effective, accessible and accountable.  I think our courts need to be fair and treat everybody with well-applied law fairly and appropriately to them in the circumstances of their case. The courts just need to be convenient, they need to be understandable and they need to be affordable to everyone.”

Wooton said more needs to be done to improve public confidence in the court.

“I think the court has a problem still, stemming from the scandals of 2018,” he said. “I think we can improve our transparency. Sunlight is the best cure for what happened.

“If every expenditure for travel or office furnishings were made public at the time I don’t think you’d see much of that. Frankly, I think it is improved since 2018. That was a real low. But I think more can be done. What happened in 2018 destroyed a lot of the residual goodwill of the court.”

Campaigning in crazy times 

Precautions to limit the spread of coronavirus curtailed shaking hands and speaking to crowds. That hampered the campaign plans for the candidates.

Wooton said his wife, a graphic designer, had helped him with brochures that he now can’t easily pass out in person.

“Well, fortunately my wife designed our brochure so it could double as a direct mail piece,” he said.

His campaign has also been running advertisements on broadcast stations.

Tabit filed for this race not long after the quick 2018 special election cooled down.

“Hopefully the 10 months of footwork and ground work we’ve put in will help us in the long run,” she said, adding that she has participated in some events using teleconferencing while also reaching out to voters through social media and broadcast.

“We probably have been continually running since August of 2018, really. So I hope that hard work will pay off in June.”

Raynes said the coronavirus has cramped her campaign style.

“It was not ideal, that’s for sure,” she said. “I had big plans starting out. Just dinners every week and events. One by one, cancel, cancel, cancel.”

The result, she said, has required more creativity through social media, radio and newspaper advertisements.

Douglas said he made 13 trips to the Eastern Panhandle and another half-dozen to the Wheeling area before everything shut down.

Now he is relying on social media, some digital geo-tracking and broadcast advertisements as well as 3-by-3 stickers on the front of the newspaper.

“I always like to look in people’s eyes,” Douglas said. “I have about 3,000 orange pins I’m looking at now that I can’t get rid of.”

Election Day is June 9. Early voting in person starts May 27 and goes until June 6. Expanded absentee balloting is also taking place in West Virginia this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

 





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