WASHINGTON, D.C. - State Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin said he was honored to take part in a panel discussion about judicial elections at the National Press Club.
Benjamin took part in a discussion May 23 about the impact of the media and advertising in recent judicial elections in the United States and trends that may impact judicial elections in 2008. It was organized by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania and FactCheck.org.
"It was great fun," Benjamin said after returning to Charleston. "The National Press Club is a premiere venue to give presentations, and it was an honor to be asked to be on this panel."
Benjamin said enjoyed talking to respected experts on the topic from across the country.
"I think it was good for our Court and our state to be heard," he said.
Benjamin said he discussed the basic premises of a good judicial system, his beliefs about some fundamental causes for judicial elections becoming more like legislative elections and statistics about judicial elections.
Also, he said he talked about things to consider and weigh in considering reforms to our judicial election system, such as the importance of ensuring information to voters and protecting the First Amendment.
He said some of the ads run in his 2004 campaign against former Justice Warren McGraw – by both candidates and independent groups – also were shown.
"A fair and equal system of justice is the foundation of any free society," Benjamin said in his prepared remarks. "Fundamental to this justice system is the public's confidence in the integrity of Court decisions and the impartiality of its judges. …
"Courts and judges should be accountable to the Constitution and the laws of the United States and to the Constitution and laws of their respective states. They should not be accountable to political parties, special interests, elected officials, or those in pursuit of self-serving partisan interest."
He also talked about how the judicial system exists for the people.
"It is their system -- every bit as much as it is their government," Benjamin said. "The judicial system is there to serve the people. As such, we would be well-served in our noble, and I believe it is noble, endeavor to identify and correct problems in our judicial system, to remember the people; to focus on them; to respect them; and to never underestimate them."
Benjamin said he also agreed with U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jon Roberts and former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor about how judges should be impartial arbiters of the law, not partisan policy makers.
"When judges go beyond being impartial arbiters of the law, when they become partisan policy makers, they create an environment which encourages, or expects, activism, or policy making, in our courts," he said. "This is a system which attracts the same types of elections that we see for legislative policy-makers and for gubernatorial policy-makers.
"Former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has recently commented that she sees no place for partisanship in judicial elections. I fully agree. Partisanship has no place, in my opinion, in the judiciary."
Other panelists included Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb; Justice at Stake Executive Director Bert Brandenburg; David Browne, media consultant to Justice Cobb's 2006 race and treasurer of the Democratic Judicial Campaign Committee; Allan Crow, advertising consultant in the 2006 Georgia Supreme Court race; Spencer Noe, president of the Kentucky Judicial Campaign Conduct Committee; and Jeff Roe, a media consultant for a third-party group in a 2006 Missouri court race. FactCheck.org Deputy Director Viveca Novak moderated.
Benjamin was elected to a full 12-year term on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals in 2004. After what was called one of the most expensive judicial races in history, Benjamin unseated Warren McGraw for his seat on the Supreme Court in 2004.
Prior to his election, Benjamin was an attorney in private practice in Charleston. His practice focused on civil litigation in state and federal courts, including toxic torts and complex litigation. His civil rights practice focused on protecting children from physical and sexual abuse.
He also is a member of the Hocking College Archaeological Mission and has participated in archaeological excavations in the United States and Egypt.