An inadequate solution

By The West Virginia Record | Nov 1, 2008

Gov. Joe Manchin says he's had it with partisan judicial elections.

He doesn't mind the election part. But it's the Republican and Democrat labels that bother him. Manchin wants judges to discard their party affiliation and run as "non partisan." He thinks the change would make the state appear fairer to businesses.

"I applaud the judges for considering this. They know there is a problem with the perception of the judicial system," Manchin said this week. "People are upset about this because of the appearance of unfairness."

We think they're upset about the stark reality of it, not the perception of it.

Those three headline-grabbing verdicts from 2007 -- $404 million in Roane County vs. Chesapeake Energy, $251 million in Harrison County vs. DuPont, and $219 million in Brooke County vs. Massey Energy -- didn't appear to be unfair.

They flat out were, as numerous critics have noted.

West Virginia's economy has suffered ever since because some elected judges seem more like facilitators. Their actions reflected their particular vision of our justice system -- a vision that should be laid bare for voters in a public partisan election.

Some judges see their role as independent referees, charged with carefully interpreting laws as written.

Others, and we include those who presided over the three multi-million dollar verdicts, seem to believe it's OK to write law from the bench as the need arises. They see themselves not as referees but as pseudo-lawmakers, shielded by their robes from traditional criticism while handing down broad mandates to which we fall subject.

It seems to be that frame of mind that led a small county judge in West Virginia to imagine his authority included the power to regulate pollution levels for all of America, or to make smelly industrial emissions effectively illegal in our state.

Party affiliation can help voters decide where a judge stands. Given the intensity of some trial lawyers who try to use our courts to serve their own political purposes, the ability to discern has never been more important.

Branding judicial elections "non partisan" is a superficial remedy at best. At worst, it could confuse and mislead voters and businesses.

It's a bad idea for West Virginia.

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