THEIR VIEW: The critical Supreme Court race of 2012

By HOPPY KERCHEVAL

CHARLESTON -- Quick. Name any of the candidates for the West Virginia Supreme Court this year.

For that matter, name just one of the five members of the state Supreme Court.

Couldn't do it? You're not alone.

Inside the beltway (if we had a beltway) political wonks know who's on the court, who's running and their chances, but outside the beltway, in the little white houses across West Virginia, you would be hard pressed to find voters who know much about the state's highest court and its members.

It's not the voters' fault. The Supreme Court has been a pretty quiet place since two of the more controversial members--Larry Starcher and Spike Maynard--left.

But the state Supreme Court race this year will be one of the most critical on the ballot. Consider that the court has just five members and there are two seats up this year. It's possible that the entire direction of the court could swing, depending on the outcome.

There are six Democrats running: Robin Davis (the only incumbent), J.D. Beane, Tish Chafin, Louis Palmer, H. John Rogers and Jim Rowe. Two Republicans are running: John Yoder and Allen Loughry.

Since there are only two Republicans, and two seats open, Yoder and Loughry are guaranteed the nominations by their party in the May Primary. But on the Democratic side, Davis, Beane, Chafin, Palmer, Rogers and Rowe will have to fight it out for the two ballot positions.

Six of the eight candidates appeared on Talkline Monday for a debate sponsored by the Independent Insurance Agents of West Virginia. H. John Rogers and John Yoder were not able to attend.

The debate demonstrated, to me at least, how difficult it is going to be for voters to draw distinctions among the candidates. They had a remarkable amount of agreement on many of the issues raised.

For example, is West Virginia a judicial hellhole? No, they all said, though several of them agreed that is the perception. Does West Virginia need an intermediate appeals court? All said no, except Loughry, who said yes. Should West Virginia have an appointed court, instead of an elected court? No, they all said.

Additionally, judicial candidates are constrained in their public comments by the state Code of Judicial Conduct. The candidates are specifically prohibited from "making statements that appear to commit the candidate regarding cases, controversies or issues likely to come before the court."

In short, the candidates, unlike other politicians, cannot make specific campaign promises about what they will do when/if they are elected. They can't say how they would rule on a case. Now, that's good for justice, but not necessarily for political campaigns.

All this makes it particularly difficult, not only for the candidate to separate himself or herself, but also for the voter to know what kind of justice the person will be? Is the candidate a liberal or a conservative? A judicial activist or a constructionist?

It's not enough for a judicial candidate to say that he/she will simply follow where the law leads. If that were the case, all decisions would be 5-0. The path a justice takes to reach a decision is guided by one's background, life experiences, education and personal philosophy about the role of the judiciary.

You will be hearing about the state Supreme Court race in the months ahead. Davis and Chafin have personal wealth they can use for a statewide campaign. Loughry has qualified for about $400,000 in public funds for his campaign. The others can and will raise money from donors.

There will be lots of ads, as well as plenty of campaign stops.

The challenge will be for voters to sort through the careful remarks of the candidates and make informed choices in this important race.

Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast by the MetroNews Statewide Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday.

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