Circuit judge group wants elections partisan

By Kelly Holleran | Dec 4, 2008




MORGANTOWN -- The West Virginia Judiciary Association announced its support of the state's current method to elect judges, choosing not to support the idea of non-partisan judicial elections.

The group's executive committee already had unanimously endorsed non-partisan elections for all judges after being approached by Gov. Joe Manchin on the issue. It had agreed to present the idea before the full group of more than 90 circuit judges and Supreme Court justices at its annual winter conference in Morgantown this week.

However, the resulting resolution instead supported the state's current partisan system and also declared the group's commitment to participate "in discussions to improve the judiciary."

"We remain willing to do that," Putnam Circuit Judge O.C. Spaulding, the association's incoming president, told The Associated Press. "But at this point, our position is, 'We support the present method of selecting judges and justices.'"

Spaulding explained the association's decision to the AP by citing a House-Senate legislative interim committee's continuing reviews of selection methods. A panel overseen by former West Virginia University law school dean John Fisher also influenced the group's decision, Spaulding told the AP.

The group plans to participate in both the panel and the legislative committee, Spaulding said.

Currently, 13 states –- including Kentucky and North Carolina -– choose their Supreme Court justices via non-partisan elections. Two others -– Michigan and Ohio –- have a selection process that includes both non-partisan and partisan elements.

After Manchin spoke to the association's executive committee in October, he applauded their efforts.

"The committee talked to me about it, and they know there is a problem with the perception of the judicial system," Manchin told The West Virginia Record.

A switch to non-partisan elections would make sense, Manchin said in October.

"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."

After the meeting with Manchin, Circuit Judge Alan D. Moats, outgoing president of the Judicial Association, talked of the executive committee's plans to bring the idea before the full association this month.

"We'll see where the Judicial Association stands on this," Moats, who serves Barbour and Taylor counties, told The West Virginia Record. "What we're looking at is a system in which we take as much politics as possible out of the election."

Just as the privatization of the state's Worker's Compensation system helped draw new business to the state, so too might non-partisan elections, Manchin said in October.

"I believe the non-partisan election of judges might go a long way to take out the appearance of impropriety," he said.

"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."

Both those for non-partisan elections and those against them have valid arguments, Moats told The Record.

"The bottom line is to do what is in the best interest of the state," he said.

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