Too many West Virginia judges these days reign intoxicated with power.
That's why we're glad to see Democrat State Supreme Court Justice Elliott "Spike" Maynard has opted to run for re-election in 2008.
Maynard, a Mingo County native, former prosecutor and circuit court judge first elected to West Virginia's highest court in 1996, is perhaps best-known for his plain-spoken, animated dissents. For we professional observers, they stand out on the court as the only ones we'd still read if we didn't have to ("This is the type of nonsense that makes people shake their heads at court decisions.").
Yet direct and judgmental are his words, Maynard is best-appreciated for his restraint. This judge knows his place, which is to interpret West Virginia laws, not write new ones.
To the detriment of our democracy, judge-as-lawmaker has sadly become the norm here and elsewhere. When they slip on those robes, apparently, the mere mortals we elect to man our bench just cannot help themselves.
Remember forklift driver Bart Morris? He's the Virginian who was injured in Virginia, but wanted to sue his employer in Charleston instead. Kanawha County Circuit Court Judge Tod Kaufman dismissed the lawsuit, following a state law passed in 2003 that expressly bars claims from nonresidents like Morris unless they've been denied jurisdiction elsewhere.
Morris hadn't. But four of five members of the Supreme Court still voted to overturn his case's dismissal. They didn't like the 2003 law and decided to negate it, asserting that Morris' constitutional rights had been offended. All Americans should have on-demand access to West Virginia courts, the court said.
Maynard disagreed, stating the obvious.
"These nonresident plaintiffs who may have very legitimate claims are nevertheless expending the time and limited resources of our State court system, to the detriment of resident plaintiffs, when their claims could have been brought elsewhere, " he wrote. "Nonresidents (abuse) our courts by flooding them with litigation, not because they do not have a forum elsewhere, but simply because they believe they may achieve a better result here."
That such "forum shopping" is now officially sanctioned by West Virginia, clogging our courts and forcing Mountain State taxpayers to foot the bill for out-of-state litigators, comes compliments of our judiciary. And we the people, no matter our majority preference, remain powerless to do anything about it. Call it representative government, emasculated.
To be sure, judges routinely thwart the will of the people not just because they can, but because we let them.
Judicial elections matter. A Supreme Court with more Spike Maynards would serve West Virginia well.