CHARLESTON – A bill that continues a public financing program to the 2016 state Supreme Court election was approved by the state Legislature on April 13, the final day of its session.

The program began as a pilot project in the 2012 election, and Republican Allen Loughry was the lone candidate in a field of four to use it. He was elected to one of two open seats, using $350,000 received from the program for his campaign.

The House of Delegates had passed the bill on April 3 with a 70-29 vote.

In a contested primary election, candidates who use the program will receive $300,000. In a contested general election, a candidate will receive $525,000.

“As spending by candidates and independent parties increases, so does the perception that contributors and interested third parties hold too much influence over the judicial process,” the bill says.

“The detrimental effects of spending large amounts by candidates and independent parties are especially problematic in judicial elections because impartiality is uniquely important to the integrity and credibility of our courts.”

Furthering the public financing program from a wide range of revenue sources furthers state interests, the bill adds.

Justices are elected to 12-year terms. Current Chief Justice Brent Benjamin’s seat will be open in the 2016 election.

It was during his 2004 campaign against incumbent Warren McGraw that a debate over spending in Supreme Court elections took off.

Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship spent more than $3 million promoting Benjamin in the campaign through an organization called “And For the Sake of the Kids.”

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that Benjamin should’ve recused himself in Massey’s appeal of a $50 million verdict against it. Benjamin had voted to overturn the verdict, but the case was reheard after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Ultimately, the verdict was overturned in a 3-2 vote.

The public financing bill failed in 2009 but eventually passed in 2010 to set up the 2012 pilot program.

In September, the state Supreme Court denied Loughry’s writ seeking to force the State Election Commission to provide his campaign with matching funds.

The matching funds provision was designed to help candidates who were being outspent by opponents who were not taking part in the program.

Loughry filed his writ of mandamus on July 30, arguing that the SEC “failed to carry out the unambiguous duty” imposed under the program.

In the petition, Loughry argued that the commission violated the statutory command of West Virginia code that requires the commission to authorize the release of funds once a determination was made that the conditions for a release was met.

The state Supreme Court explained in a 5-0 ruling that the question was not only whether the SEC had a statutory duty to authorize the release of matching funds, but whether the funds provision violated the free speech clause of the First Amendment.

From the West Virginia Record: Reach John O’Brien at jobrienwv@gmail.com.

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