Editor’s Note: In the coming weeks, The West Virginia Record will profile candidates in this year’s election for the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals and for state Attorney General.
HARPERS FERRY – John Yoder knew he’d be on the campaign trail this spring, but he didn’t expect to be on the road to recovery as well.
Yoder, an eastern Panhandle circuit judge who is running for state Supreme Court, had heart surgery in February to replace his aortic heart valve.
After a few weeks of recovery, Yoder returned to work and learned he would be navigating a new assignment after having been given the docket of former Circuit Judge Gina Groh, who was confirmed as a new U.S. District Judge.
“I’m doing fine,” Yoder, 61, said of his recovery. “I wouldn’t say it’s back to normal. I can’t do heavy physical exercise above my waist, but I’m fine. I’m walking several miles a day.”
As for the new job assignment, he said he enjoys it.
“I am no longer handling abuse and neglect or juvenile cases, but instead am doing adult felony and civil cases,” he said. “I am working solely out of Berkeley County and no longer am riding the circuit to Berkeley Springs and Jefferson. I am very glad for the change and a different experience with the new assignment. Plus, the less travel helps with my recovery, too, right now.”
When he isn’t on the bench, Yoder also is traveling the state garnering support for his Supreme Court candidacy. He and state Supreme Court law clerk Allen Loughry are running as Republicans for two seats on the Court.
“I feel it’s going OK,” Yoder said. “I think a lot of the focus right now is on the Democratic side and who’s going to win. Frankly, the strategy of my race depends on who will win on the democratic side. That will determine what focus I’ll take.
“I’m going out to Republican events right now. I have to juggle that with the fact that I have to be in court a lot. So that limits me some. I’m pretty busy and pretty active.”
In 2012, Yoder tested the waters by running against Justice Tom McHugh to fill the rest of the term created by the death of former Justice Joseph Albright. Yoder came close to winning then.
“I had just started as a circuit judge, and I had a heavy caseload and couldn’t campaign much at all,” he said. “Justice McHugh spent close to $300,000, and I spent $6,000. I had 49.2 percent of the vote.
“That race gave me a whole lot of credibility with people who didn’t think I had a chance. Judge McHugh is someone who is very well respected. He doesn’t have an enemy in the state. A lot of people didn’t think I had a chance. They wrote me off. I don’t think I was taken seriously by a lot of people.
“After the election, I heard from several people who said, ‘If I had known you had a chance, I would have supported you and worked for you.’”
This time around, Yoder said, the race is different.
“Unlike McHugh, there are people running on the Democratic side who have supporters and detractors,” he said. “There are some running who have negatives with people in the state. I think that 2010 race gave me a whole lot of credibility and publicity that others will have to catch up with.”
He said he’s hearing good things on the campaign trail.
“Before, people would tell me they didn’t think I had a chance,” Yoder said. “Now, a lot of people are telling me I’m going to win.”
Still, he knows the Republican race for Supreme Court isn’t on the top of everyone’s mind right now. He and Loughry will be the GOP candidates in the fall.
“For the events that I go to, more people right now are focused on the presidential race,” Yoder said. “That seems to be where a lot of the focus is. There are other races that are drawing more attention – attorney general, governor, president.”
When he does talk to people about his race, he said they’re saying the Court needs a change.
“I think part of it is that there is a perception that our legal system is unfair toward business,” Yoder said. “And that hurts job creation. If Republicans were elected to the Supreme Court, it would change that perception.
“Most of the focus at these Republican events right now is changing the status quo on the Court and that the Court is anti-business. (Republican gubernatorial candidate) Bill Maloney frequently brings up the courts as one of the things that hurt job creation in our state.
“I think that it is so very important for us to have a court system with predictable opinions in order to attract businesses here who want to invest their money and create jobs. It’s a lot about creating jobs, bringing in more tax revenue, creating businesses here so our children and grandchildren don’t have to move out of state to find jobs.”
Yoder said he is open to the idea of an intermediate appellate court.
“I support it, but maybe my support is more qualified,” he said. “It depends on how it is set up … maybe with three different divisions along congressional lines. If it’s like state Supreme Court, it doesn’t change much. It’s just another layer of judges … more bureaucracy.
“We have to define what we’re talking about. There has to be something different that just another statewide appeals court. What difference is that going make?”
All in all, Yoder said he is optimistic about his campaign.
“On one hand, I might have gotten a slower start that I would have liked because I was out for health reasons,” he said. “But on the other hand, I really got a start two years ago. And I was out campaigning this fall. I’m kind of amazed at how early some people started campaigning in this race.
Yoder’s political career has seen him serve in all three branches of government as well as work in the private sector.
After serving four years as a Kansas circuit judge from 1976-1980, Yoder was selected in a national competition to serve at the United States Supreme Court as a Supreme Court Fellow in 1980. After that, the Chief Justice of the United States hired him to work on his staff. President Reagan next appointed him to establish and run a new subdivision at the U.S. Department of Justice. After that, he was twice elected as a West Virginia State Senator to two four-year terms prior to being elected as a judge in 2008.
Yoder graduated from Chapman University, and he received his law degree from the University of Kansas and an MBA at the University of Chicago.
On the Democratic side, current Justice Robin Jean Davis, circuit judges J.D. Beane and Jim Rowe, Charleston attorney Tish Chafin, current Supreme Court law clerk Louis Palmer and New Martinsville attorney H. John “Buck” Rogers are running for the two spots in the general election.
The primary election is May 8, and the general election is Nov. 6.