Steve Cohen

The public should watch closely the process in the state capital for replacing retiring Judge George W. Hill on the 4th Circuit Court bench in Wood and Wirt counties.

The governor has set up an advisory panel process to identify replacement judge candidates in the past, but the first seven-member advisory panel included three personal injury lawyers but not one business community representative or defense lawyer.

Gov. Joe Manchin has yet to announce his choices for the advisory panel to recommend Judge Hill's successor. Will personal injury lawyers, who give vast sums of money to state political campaigns, be favored in the panel, or will there be a cross-section of community leaders representing many interests?

One would have to be a modern day Rip Van Winkle in West Virginia not to be aware of the huge controversy over our state courts in recent years. The McGraw-Benjamin Supreme Court race helped to educate citizens about problems in our courts and the implications of partisan Court elections, and ever since our state leaders have been wrestling with efforts to improve the courts and our civil justice system.

The new circuit court vacancy and the nominating process again raises the question of how our state should select its judges - as well as the issues of judicial ethics, fairness and trust in our courts and the enormous implications for West Virginia workers and families. Healthcare providers and employers pay close attention to quality of state court systems, and they prefer to be located in states where the court system is fair.

Unfortunately, West Virginia's court system has struggled with a near worst-in-the-nation ranking in recent years.

Gov. Manchin's executive order last summer to create an advisory panel process to review and fill judicial vacancies brings hope for remedying public concern about the quality of our courts and our judicial selection process. The next round of panel nominations will tell voters a great deal about this administration's views about what constitutes fairness in our courts.

The governor's legal counsel, Carte Goodwin, reportedly stated that the advisory panel to replace Judge Hill "would represent a cross-section of attorneys and the community," and that "the guiding factor will be to find the most qualified person," according to The Parkersburg News-Sentinel.

That's great news, but the proof is in the pudding. This second nominating panel should represent true balance and help restore public confidence in our courts.

Cohen is executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, a nonprofit citizen watchdog group interested in a variety of civil justice issues. Persons wanting more information can visit www.WVJusticeWatch.org or write to P.O. Box 127, Charleston, WV 25321.

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