By HOPPY KERCHEVAL

MORGANTOWN -- A federal judgeship is a plum job.

Appointees serve for life, never having to face the electorate or raise money for a campaign. At age 65, a federal judge may retire at full salary or take senior status if they have 15 years of active service.

Unfortunately for West Virginia, Craig Broadwater, a federal judge for the Northern District of West Virginia, never got a chance to retire. Broadwater died from cancer two years ago last month. He was only 56.

Broadwater was highly respected for his personal and professional achievements. The WVU Law School graduate was a devout Christian and a veteran. He rose to the rank of lieutenant in the Army and was a certified Green Beret.

He was a brigadier general in the Army National Guard at the time of his death.

For over two years, Broadwater's seat has been vacant, even as a qualified replacement waited for a confirmation hearing that never came.

In May, 2007, President Bush nominated Martinsburg attorney William Powell. Powell is the administrative manager of the Martinsburg office of Jackson and Kelly. He served two years as an assistant U.S Attorney.

There is no question about Powell's qualifications, but his party affiliation (Republican) and the timing of his selection doomed his appointment.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller signed off on Powell's appointment. Sen. Robert Byrd's approval came later last year, but sources tell me those "blue slips" as they are called didn't come until more than a year after the nomination was made.

The timing made it unlikely that the Senate would conduct a hearing on Powell before the end of the last Congress. And, in fact, no hearing was ever held.

One source familiar with the situation told me there was a feeling that President Bush had already appointed enough Republican judges and Democrats were going to hold out to see if they could reclaim the White House, and thus appoint their own judges.

Now with Barack Obama headed to the Oval Office, Powell's opportunity to ascend to the bench is over and a Democrat will take his place.

That Democrat is Charleston lawyer Ned Rose. Rose is qualified. He has his own law practice, served as state Tax Commissioner and once clerked for Federal Judge Robert Maxwell, though he has never served as a prosecutor or a judge.

But just as important is Rose's political connections. Rose has served twice as Sen. Byrd's campaign manager and is a close friend of the senior senator's.

Still, Rose's selection is drawing some criticism.

The Martinsburg Journal last week complained that Powell's appointment languished in the Senate. The paper also groused that Rose is not from the North District. He lives in Charleston.

Rose could, if he wishes, respond by noting that while he lives and works in Charleston, he's originally from Marion County (in the Northern District) and once clerked in U.S. District Court in Elkins (also in the North District).

Meanwhile, there are four vacancies on the 15-member U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit that covers West Virginia. Currently, two West Virginians serve on the court-Blane Michael and Robert King-and I'm told it's unlikely that West Virginia will get to fill any of the vacancies.

These are significant appointments because the Richmond-based Fourth District has the reputation as being one of the most conservative federal courts in the country. The San Francisco-based Ninth District is the most liberal.

Some Democrats hope that President-elect Obama will appoint judges who will move the Fourth District more to the left.

Federal judgeships and the make-up of these appeal courts get very little press coverage, especially compared with how the media cover state Circuit and Supreme Court actions. But federal judge's are powerful, and often consider cases with significant Constitutional implications.

The lifetime appointment also means that it's in the best interest of the country that the politically powerful make wise choices, regardless of which party happens to be in the White House.

Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast by the MetroNews Statewide Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday.

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