CHARLESTON – When it comes to confessing belief or opposition to making judicial elections non-partisan, at least two candidates for state Supreme Court admit to being agnostic on the question.
On Jan. 26, all five candidates for Supreme Court -– Beth Walker, Margaret Workman, Robert M. Bastress Jr., Menis E. Ketchum and Chief Justice Elliott E. "Spike" Maynard -– were present for a candidate forum co-sponsored by WESPAC, the political action committee of the West Virginia State Medical Association. The forum was part of the Association's mid-winter conference held at the Charleston Marriott.
Each candidate was allotted 15 minutes to speak which included time for the audience to pose questions. Two of the candidates, Bastress and Maynard, were asked their position on the non-partisan election of judges.
"Oh my gosh," Bastress said, as he pondered the question. After taking a moment to think, Bastress said while he doesn't oppose the idea, research he's seen has found no real difference in quality of candidates in partisan versus non-partisan races.
"I know it's awful discomforting to raise money for a judicial campaign," Bastress said. "It would be nice if we could have a system that we could avoid that. I'm not sure I have a better system in mind, however."
"That's a long way of saying I don't think it makes a difference," he added.
Like Bastress, Maynard said he doesn't oppose non-partisan judicial elections. However, he sees no reason to change the current way judges are elected.
"I don't oppose the non-partisan election of judges," Maynard said. "I like the present system. I got elected under it."
Maynard, a Democrat, and the lone incumbent in the race, was first elected to the Court in 1996. After being appointed to the bench by then-Gov. John D. Rockefeller IV in 1981, Maynard was twice elected circuit judge in Mingo County.
Currently, three bills are pending in the West Virginia Legislature dealing with non-partisan election of judges.
In the House, HB 2950 would make elections of both justices for the Supreme Court and circuit court judges non-partisan beginning this year. It is sponsored by Dels. Kelli Sobonya (R-Cabell), Linda Sumner (R-Raleigh), Carol Miller (R-Cabell), Marshall Long (D-Mercer), Ruth Rowan (R-Hampshire), Walter E. Duke (R-Berkeley) and John N. Ellem (R-Wood).
In the Senate, one bill (SB 218) makes elections for both justices and circuit judges non-partisan whereas another (SB 475) only deals with justices. The former would not take effect until 2010 while the latter, like HB 2950, would begin in 2008.
SB 218 is co-sponsored by Sens. Brooks McCabe (D-Kanawha), Jesse O. Guills (R-Greenbrier) and Evan H. Jenkins (D-Cabell). Along with Sens. Clark Barnes (R-Randolph) and Dave Sypolt (R-Preston), Jenkins is a co-sponsor of SB 475.
All three bills are in the respective chambers' judiciary committees.