CHARLESTON – A push for the non-partisan election of judges in West Virginia seems to be just around the corner.
Gov. Joe Manchin said Wednesday the issue came up recently when he talked to members of the executive committee of the state Judicial Association, a group for the state's circuit judges.
"I applaud the judges for considering this," Manchin said. "The committee talked to me about it, and they know there is a problem with the perception of the judicial system."
Circuit Judge Alan D. Moats, president of the state Judicial Association, confirmed his group did talk to Manchin about the idea.
"I know it's an issue that's come up before," he said. "The state Senate has looked at it in interim meetings."
Moats, who is the circuit judge for Barbour and Taylor counties, said the Judicial Association's executive committee is in favor of the non-partisan election of all judges in the state -- from state Supreme Court justices to county magistrates. That includes circuit judges and family court judges, as well.
"We plan to bring it before the entire association at our December meeting," Moats said. "We'll see where the Judicial Association stands on this issue.
"What we're looking at is a system in which we take as much politics as possible out of the elections."
Currently, 13 states -- including Kentucky and North Carolina -- choose their Supreme Court justices via non-partisan election. Two others -- Michigan and Ohio -- have a process that includes partisan and non-partisan elements.
Manchin said he thinks a switch to non-partisan election of judges makes sense.
"When it comes to judgment, the referee has to be fair," he said. "And that's what our judges are. They're referees.
"When you lose that fairness or even the appearance of fairness in our courts, it hurts everyone. Employers won't come to the state. Businesses won't expand in the state."
Manchin cited the privatization of the state's Workers' Compensation system as one step that helped draw new business to the state.
"When we did that, our economy took off," he said. "I believe the non-partisan election of judges might go a long way to take out the appearance of impropriety.
"Will it result in a big boost to our state and our economy? I don't know. But I do know it is a step in the right direction."
Moats said both sides of the issue – those for and those against non-partisan elections – have valid arguments.
"The bottom line is to do what is in the best interest of the state," Moats said.
Manchin had met with the Judicial Association's executive committee after two circuit judges – Charles King in Kanawha County and Alfred Ferguson in Cabell County – announced plans to retire from their seats in October. Both could return to the bench in January after their unopposed runs in the Nov. 4 general election.
A loophole in the judicial pension system allows King and Ferguson to retire, start receiving pension benefits and return to office in January. The loophole allows them to simultaneously collect pension benefits and a salary for the upcoming term. Manchin has said he and his staff will work to fix that loophole when the Legislature convenes in February.
Calling King and Ferguson "tremendous" public servants, Manchin still questioned their actions.
"Take me being governor out of the picture," Manchin said. "If you're asking me for my vote and I give it to you, I'm giving you not just a vote. I'm giving you my trust. And if I see a public servant doing this, I can see how people think they might have been misled.
"People are upset about this because of the appearance of unfairness. You have to wonder if they had taken this step had they have had an opponent in the election."
Manchin said the underlying issue is fairness.
"What they've done seems to go against the intent of the way the retirement system was set up. I think the retirement system needs to be fair across the board for our public retirees."
Moats said many of the details -- such as when the elections would occur, during the primary or general election -- still would have to be worked out. And he noted that the associations for family court judges and magistrates would have to be on board, as well.
Still, Moats said having the support of the governor will be helpful is the issue goes further.
"It's always good when you have someone by your side," he said. "And it's always good if an agreement can be reached.
"Last year when we made the push to add three new circuit judges across the state, Gov. Manchin stood beside us. And it made a difference. We had him on board, and we quickly had the Legislature on board.
"It made things come together much more smoothly."