Magistrate bill withers in committee

By Justin Anderson | Apr 8, 2009


CHARLESTON – A bill proponents believed would bring more focus to magistrate elections failed to emerge from the House Judiciary Committee, rendering the bill dead for the session.

The legislation, Senate Bill 591, sailed through the Senate, but was placed 12th on a list of 17 bills on the House Judiciary's agenda Wednesday, missing a deadline for bills to emerge from committees.

The regular session of the Legislature ends at midnight Saturday.

The bill would have created a system of election for the state's 158 magistrate seats that was done by divisions, instead of a pool of names all running for a certain number of spots. The current system seems to favor incumbents.

The bill was endorsed by the state Supreme Court and the state magistrate association. It's the same way circuit judges and family court judges are elected.

Supreme Court Administrator Steve Canterbury said there was a lot of misunderstanding about the bill. He said many thought the divisions had to do with geography.

He said the bill would have allowed incumbents and challengers to choose to run in any of the divisions, no matter where they lived. He said the court issued a memorandum to members of the Legislature in an attempt to clarify the bill.

The number of divisions in each county would have been determined by the number of magistrate posts authorized by the Legislature.

Canterbury said the hope was that by using the division method, incumbents would likely not be running against each other and would be forced to focus on a strong campaign of why they wanted to be the magistrate.

"Right now, it's a popularity contest," Canterbury said, adding that he wasn't criticizing the current magistrate corps.

"This is just a clearer way of focusing on peoples desires to run."

For instance, in Kanawha County, there are 10 magistrate seats. If all 10 incumbents ran for re-election and 10 challengers filed, each incumbent would only be running against one other candidate. The current method would have all 20 candidates running for 10 seats as a group.

Canterbury said the division method also may have cut down on campaign costs for candidates.

Magistrate pay and costs to the Supreme Court would not have changed under the bill, Canterbury said.

The Supreme Court also endorsed bills that would have raised the annual pay for the state's 45 family court judges from $82,500 to $111,000, bringing their pay up in the nationwide rankings.

Right now, West Virginia family court judges rank last.

Bills were introduced in both the House and the Senate, but neither made it passed initial committee references.

A likely reason is that the raises would increase the family court judge payroll by $1.5 million, including health care and pension costs. That increase would have been reflected in the Supreme Court's budget.

Lawmakers had vowed to keep a tight grip on the state's finances this year during the nationwide recession.

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