Allen Loughry speaks Wednesday during a state Supreme Court candidate forum at The Greenbrier. (Photo by Chris Dickerson)
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS – The four candidates for the state Supreme Court have made their pitches to West Virginia's corporate boardroom.
The quartet spoke Wednesday to attendees of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce's Annual Meeting and Business Summit at The Greenbrier.
Democrat Tish Chafin addressed the forum first.
"I care deeply about West Virginia, and I want West Virginia to be competitive," she told the crowd.
She also talked about her time as president of the State Bar. She visited all 55 county courthouses during her presidency.
"I heard a recurring theme," she said. "Everybody wants a balanced court that is fair, transparent and independent."
Democrat and incumbent Justice Robin Jean Davis spoke next.
"I'm the most senior member of our court, but I'm not the oldest," Davis said. "I've worked with 13 different justices. I've seen it all. I've seen the court when it was highly divided, very political.
"I love my work. I love what I do for the state of West Virginia. And I want desperately to keep my job."
Davis also cited the Chamber's annual Court Watch presentation that preceded the candidates' forum. In that, the Chamber reviewed 32 state Supreme Court rulings and found that 22 of them were friendly toward businesses.
"That speaks volumes about where we've been and where we've come," she said. "We've rolled up our sleeves, and we've worked."
Davis also noted that she has been elected Chief Justice by her peers five times in her 16 years on the Court and has participated in more than 2,500 opinions. And of the ones appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, she proudly said, "Not one opinion – not one – has been reversed."
Republican Allen Loughry noted that with two of the five seats up for election this year, the impact this Supreme Court election will have is "very critical."
"This isn't something that will affect you for the next two or four or even 12 years," he said. "This will affect West Virginia for generations.
"There are two seats up on the court, and I only want one of them," he joked, later adding, ""If you honor me with your vote, I will serve you with honor."
He said this election is about qualifications and ethics.
"It truly is time we wake up and start holding people accountable for what's happening," Loughry said. "Predictability is good, but stability is what we really want. We all want to feel like we received a fair day in court."
Republican John Yoder told the business crowd about his business background, having studied economics at the University of Chicago under Nobel Prize winner Milton Freedman. He also taught business and started an oil and gas business.
The current circuit judge also spoke of his experience in all three branches of government, including work at the U.S. Supreme Court and the Department of Justice, a stint in the West Virginia Senate and judicial posts in West Virginia and Kansas.
"I understand the differences between the three branches of government," Yoder said. "I know judges aren't supposed to legislate or make social policy. There have been times I've had to rule for laws that I voted against in the Legislature. I might not agree with a law, but it is the law. We need that perspective."
After opening comments, the candidates fielded questions from the audience. The discussed this year's pilot project of public financing for state Supreme Court races. Loughry is the only candidate to qualify for public financing. Currently, two lawsuits in state and federal court are pending about the legality of such a system.
The also talked about Chafin's proposed "Balance Court Initiative" to change the current recusal system. Now, a Justice voluntarily can recuse himself or herself or choose to do so if asked by a party in the case. Chafin's plan would allow the other Justices to have a say when a recusal request comes in if the Justice in question chooses not to drop out.
Loughry said he doesn't think such a drastic change is necessary.
"This idea is blown out of proportion," he said. "I'm not opposed to tweaking the rules, but I don't think this is the answer. Chief Justice (Menis) Ketchum actually is looking at this issue now, and he has said he'll make a decision after this election because he doesn't want the issue to become a political football."
Davis was blunt.
"I think our court is balanced," she said. "There are much bigger issues this state is facing. Let's look at the facts."
She said in the last 19 months, there have been 59 recusals on the Court.
"Of those 59, 51 were made voluntarily without the need for one written notice," Davis said. "Of the four times in those 19 months when a written request was filed, three of the four did disqualify themselves."
The exception, she said, was a case involving judicial pension. If one Justice stepped out of the case, all Justices and circuit court judges would have had to do the same.
Yoder said he agrees that the issue is one that needs to be discussed.
"I don't necessarily agree with her plan," he said. "And it's good that Chief Justice Ketchum is looking at an alternative."
Chafin said her reason for suggesting the idea was because of the backlash the Caperton v. Massey case has had on the state and the Court.
"We need to step up and change the rules," she said. "One case can erode confidence in the judiciary. It's about 'perceived bias' and improving public perception of the Court."
The candidates also expressed their views on the idea of an intermediate appellate court.
Yoder said he is in favor of the idea, as does Loughry. Chafin said she thinks the Legislature should look at the data this session after two years under the recently revised Rules for Appellate Procedure. And Davis is opposed to the idea of an intermediate appellate court.
"Why tax West Virginia citizens for another layer of appeal and more government?" she asked.