CHARLESTON – Shortly after the state’s first non-partisan judicial vote, a state coalition seeking clean elections working to said full disclosure of campaign funds needs to happen in West Virginia.
Meanwhile, a statewide legal reform group says Beth Walker’s victory shows that elections can’t be bought by “personal injury lawyers and their friends.”
West Virginians for Clean Elections issued a statement May 10 titled “Special Interests Win in Supreme Court Takeover.”
In the release, the group says there now is a $3 million price tag on a West Virginia Supreme Court seat.
“There is a reason that West Virginia has twice passed legislation to make our courts less partisan and less susceptible to outside influence: to prevent bias from skewing justice,” it said. “Just last year, our Legislature took the step to remove party IDs from all judicial elections and make them nonpartisan instead.
“In 2010 after the Caperton v. Massey U.S. Supreme Court case, the Mountain State established a judicial public financing system where candidates wouldn't have to rely on support from lawyers and special interest contributors who frequently have cases before the court and could focus more on engaging everyday voters.”
WVCE said the 2004 race was similar.
“Twelve years ago this seat was won by Brent Benjamin thanks to a $3 million donation from coal baron Don Blankenship,” the group said. “That very same seat was won by Beth Walker thanks to a similar amount spent by special interests this time such as the state's Chamber of Commerce and $2.6 million from the Republican State Leadership Committee.
“Now twice in 12 years (the length of a justice's term), special interests have found a working model to mold West Virginia's Supreme Court into their preferred image. Last time this happened, Justice Benjamin's election led to a U.S. Supreme Court case on recusal (Caperton v. Massey) and encouraged West Virginia to establish judicial public financing to remove some of the electoral pressures on judges.
“This time around, without public knowledge of what donors and what companies were behind some of these outside efforts to elevate Beth Walker onto the court, West Virginians will never know if Walker is deciding a case on its merits or returning the favor of her campaign supporters.”
West Virginians for Clean Elections was started in 2002 to support the “Fair and Clean Elections” model, a completely voluntary system that provides full public financing to candidates who agree to limit spending and take no money from private interests. It says this plan would reduce candidate reliance on special interest money and enable those who lack personal wealth or access to wealth contributors to run a competitive campaign.
WVCE says full disclosure of campaign funds is needed in the state, noting that Montana passed this legislation in April.
“Full disclosure of campaign cash is an important step to ensuring our state remains in the power of the people,” WVCE Co-Coordinator Natalie Thompson said. “All West Virginians have a right to know exactly where the money is coming from.
“Without such disclosure, there might not be a Caperton equivalent for Beth Walker because the donors are shielded behind the tax statuses of the groups they gave to.”
WVCE said Walker’s victory makes it clear that special interests’ use of misleading attacks ads is working, claiming this strategy allowed four state Supreme Court seats to go their preferred candidates in Arkansas, Wisconsin and West Virginia.
“The four candidates who were backed by these outside interests won the race each time,” the WVCE release states. “With key state Supreme Court elections occurring in Tennessee in August, as well as North Carolina and Ohio in November, more seats could be up for grabs.”
The executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, however, Walker’s victory “was a strong, clear message to the millionaire personal injury lawyers and their friends that West Virginia is not for sale.”
“We congratulate Beth Walker on her decisive victory and election to the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia,” WV CALA’s Roman Stauffer said May 11. “The personal injury lawyers who sought to use their lawsuit riches to put a friend on the bench and elect lawsuit-friendly legislative candidates got their hats handed to them Tuesday.
“They unsuccessfully poured nearly $750,000 into the May elections to promote their personal injury ‘sue and settle’ lawsuit agenda,” he said, mentioning the Just Courts For West Virginia political action committee that included donations from in-state and out-of-state law firms as well as campaign finance reports that showed “hundreds of personal injury lawyers contributed thousands of dollars to losing high court candidates Brent Benjamin and Bill Wooton, who both sought a taxpayer-funded political campaign.”
“In the middle of a budget crisis, the wealthy personal injury lawyers helped two candidates qualify for over one million dollars for a taxpayer-funded campaign, Stauffer said. “They also encouraged former Attorney General Darrell McGraw, one of the most notorious of elected officials in our state’s history, to run for the state Supreme Court.
“They raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for an outside expenditure to run misleading television ads. Voters rejected the personal injury lawyers’ candidates and their tactics.”
WVCE said Walker’s victory puts the state Supreme Court elections at risk of returning to a time before the public financing system was established when court seats are only available to those who have the backing of secret money groups, barring a number of good candidates who could otherwise participate.
“Our courts should never be at risk of being anything but fair and impartial,” Thompson said. “Our judges should be selected on their merits not on attacks ads or the money spent by wealthy special interests.”
She said the Legislature needs to make election transparency a top issue, noting a bill that would require any entity that spends more than $1,000 in a calendar year to disclose its donors to the Secretary of State’s office was introduced during the 2016 legislative session.
“Full disclosure of campaign cash is an important step to ensuring our state remains in the power of the people,” Thompson said. “All West Virginians have a right to know exactly where the money is coming from.”