CHARLESTON – Party designations might be out of future West Virginia judicial elections, but that doesn’t mean there still won’t be fighting about the issue.
Last month, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed House Bill 2010, which requires the elections of justices of the West Virginia Supreme Court, circuit court judges, family court judges and magistrates be nonpartisan and by division.
That means in the next judicial elections in 2016, there will no longer be party primaries.
All judicial candidates will be on the ballot in the spring primary, and winners will be determined then. The candidates will not be affiliated with parties.
The executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse hailed the passage of the bill.
"We commend Governor Tomblin for signing House Bill 2010, which will remove judicial races from a partisan ballot,” WV CALA’s Roman Stauffer said. “This reform, along with many others that were passed in a bi-partisan manner during the legislative session, will bring our state’s legal system into the national mainstream.
“Our current system of partisan election of judges is another example of where West Virginia is an outlier compared to other states. We are one of only seven states to elect judges in a partisan election. A judge or judicial candidate’s political affiliation should not be an issue of concern when we’re talking about ensuring that all litigants have a fair and impartial day in court."
Proponents of non-partisan judicial elections argue that the switch will cut down on the amount of money spent in the elections.
The president of the West Virginia Association for Justice, however, disagrees.
“Nonpartisan elections will do nothing to decrease the amount of money spent in our judicial elections,” said Anthony Majestro, who leads the statewide group of trial lawyers. “If anything, those expenses will increase.
“Other states that switched to nonpartisan elections saw increases in the amount of money spent on judicial elections.”
Majestro also said the state needs “real campaign finance reform.”
“It will also increase the likelihood of independent expenditures, with special interests hiding behind misleading names and refusing to disclose who has funded the effort,” he said of the switch to non-partisan judicial elections. “In 2014, millions were spent in these dark money campaigns to influence our elections – and it’s going to get worse.
“The West Virginia Senate recognized this and, in a bipartisan effort, passed an election reform bill (SB 541) that would have required full disclosure for independent expenditures. Unfortunately, the House of Delegates gutted the proposed disclosure and then refused to pass any campaign finance reform.
“If you are going to spend that kind of money, West Virginia voters have the right to know who you are. The House made an enormous mistake when it refused to pass the Senate bill.”