Wood County judgeship still open, disputes continue

By John O'Brien | Oct 27, 2006

Walt Auvil

CHARLESTON - Carte Goodwin, legal counsel for Gov. Joe Manchin, says the circuit judge opening in Wood County should be filled soon.

One Parkersburg attorney, however, thinks Goodwin might want to preface that line with "Stop me if you've heard this one before..."

"The reason we had three judges is because our court system needs three judges to handle these cases, and we were ignored, all of us," said Walt Auvil of Parkersburg firm Rusen and Auvil.

Goodwin said Wednesday that all interviews have been conducted, and he and a hiring committee are putting the finishing touches on candidate summaries that will be passed on to Manchin, who will then select the successor to George Hill, who announced his retirement 10 months ago from the court that also serves Wirt County.

Auvil, whose wife Michelle Rusen is one of the applicants and heads the county's Democratic Executive Committee, says he's not holding his breath, and directs anyone who might be to visit www.woodcountywaits.com.

The website displays a timeline describing what's happened since Hill announced his resignation. It follows statements made by Goodwin months ago similar to the ones he made Wednesday.

"The government takes this appointment very seriously," Goodwin said Wednesday. "I wish it was something we could do quicker, but at the end of the day it's better to make the right choice."

According to the timeline:

-Nine attorneys applied for the job in February, and Goodwin announced that due to the Legislative session interviews would be held in May;

-After interviews were held in July, Goodwin sent a memo to all applicants stating that the Governor's office forgot to request law school transcripts, further delaying the final two interviews;

-The final two interviews were held Aug. 24, seven months after Hill announced his retirement. Goodwin had previously stated that Manchin's goal was to have a replacement who could take over Hill's docket as soon as he stepped down;

-Delegate J.D. Beane, a Democrat, is one of the applicants, even though by voting for a judicial pay raise in 1999, state law prohibits him from taking the job;

-Wood County Commission Rick Modesitt estimates extra monthly jail costs caused by lack of permanent third judge between $30,000-$56,000, causing a $200,000 budget shortfall for the county;

-Wood Circuit Judge Jeffrey Reed sent Manchin a letter in May requesting the vacancy be filled "without unnecessary delay.";

-The county's Republican Executive Committee, Democratic Executive Committee, County Commission, Bar Association and Deputy Sheriff's Association all passed resolutions urging Manchin to act quicker;

-And a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services ranked West Virginia last in the nation in protecting children from abuse, and that Hill's division of the court was responsible for 2/3 of the Wood County child abuse cases.

"The judgeship that has been unfilled now for going on a year is the judgeship that primarily handled child abuse and neglect cases, and the replacement judges put in there (retired senior status judges James Holliday and Arthur Gustke) have refused to handle those cases," Auvil said.

"The consequence is that the other two judges have had to take the burden of all child abuse and neglect cases."

Those cases get top priority on the docket sheets, obviously, but Auvil says are helping to overwork Reed and Judge Robert Waters.

Auvil mentioned that he had a hearing on a motion to dismiss where the parties had to travel a substantial distance to be present postponed because the judge's schedule wouldn't allow it.

"The system is crowded to begin with, and to try and cram onto the judges' schedule the burden of the entire workload of child abuse and neglect cases, then stand back and say there's no effect on the system and it's not impeding it is a crock."

The timeline also points out how quickly an opening in Mercer Family Court was filled, but Goodwin has said the state Supreme Court asked for that appointment to be made as soon as possible.

Supreme Court Administrative Director Steve Canterbury in July said the difference between the openings was the availability of senior status judges in Wood County. He said those judges can handle 80-90 percent of the workload of a full-time judge.

"It's fair to say everyone would like this process to go as quick as possible," Goodwin said.

Goodwin has also been dealing with three other vacancies in Mercer, Greenbrier and Berkeley circuit courts.

The opening in Mercer was created when John Bishop retired July 31. Goodwin says interviews have been conducted for that position, and that summaries should be finalized soon.

The situation is similar in the Eastern Panhandle. Goodwin says he conducted interviews in Martinsburg last month and is drafting the summaries.

Greenbrier Circuit Judge Frank Jolliffe retires Oct. 30, and Goodwin says the search for his replacement is in its preliminary stages.

"I think the governor is certainly cognizant of how important it is with the number of openings to appoint high-quality, high-character individuals to these positions," Goodwin said.

Meanwhile, Auvil continues to wait impatiently.

"We've only got two other (judges)," he said, "so we're a small little ship trying to row with only two oars when we need three. That's not easy."

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