THEIR VIEW: Judicial reform and public opinion in W.Va.

By The West Virginia Record | Jun 18, 2009


CHARLESTON -- In West Virginia, Gov. Joe Manchin has announced former United States Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor will serve as honorary chairwoman of the governor's special commission on the state court system.

The commission will examine issues ranging from the partisan election of judges to the creation of a intermediate appellate court. The commission is to provide Governor Manchin with its report in November of this year.

Mark Blankenship Enterprises (MBE) has conducted a number of public opinion surveys in West Virginia on this topic during the last year. Revisiting some of this data helps illuminate how voters perceive some of the very issues which the governor's commission is to examine.

In September 2008, MBE conducted a random sample survey of 600 registered West Virginia voters (yielding a maximum sample variation of +/- 4 percent at a 95 percent confidence level). Sixty percent (60 percent) disagree electing "supreme court justices by partisan election in which judges are nominated by their political parties such as republican or democrat ... creates a fair court system."

Survey respondents were also read (by live telephone interviewers) a list of three possible ways judges in West Virginia could be selected and asked which they prefer as the best method. The possibilities included "partisan election of judges in which judges are nominated by their political parties such as republican or democrat" which 19 percent of voters preferred; "nonpartisan election of judges in which the candidate's political party is unknown" preferred by 36 percent of voters; and "merit selection of judges in which the governor appoints and legislature approves judges based on the judge's experience and qualifications" preferred by 37 percent. Another 8 percent didn't know which method they prefer.

Two-thirds (73 percent) of West Virginia voters prefer a judicial selection method other than the current partisan election method. This certainly suggests there is public support for examination and reform such as the commission put forth by the governor. Because a majority or strong plurality doesn't exist for either of the other two questioned selection methods, deeper research is needed to better understand the voter's perceived benefits and concerns with merit selection or non-partisan election. (Methodology Note: Interviewers used random-digit dialing procedure to interview respondents. The numbers are generated by computer to achieve maximum representation in all West Virginia counties. This technique is designed to produce a sample of registered voters that is representative of the entire population in such areas as age, gender, race, and family income. Both listed and unlisted telephone households had an equal chance of being selected in the sample).

It is also important to note survey after survey conducted by our firm in West Virginia indicates the issue which evokes the greatest concern among West Virginia voters is the economy and/or job creation. Moreover, voters regularly express a perceived connection, to some extent, between the the judicial and economic systems or climates of the state. Because the economy is such an intensely concerning issue to voters and because of this perceived correlation between the economy and the judicial system, voters are likely to watch the commission's work with great interest and high expectations.

Blankenship is president and CEO of Mark Blankeship Enterprises. Blankenship is an experienced and highly regarded opinion researcher and communications strategist. For more information, visit or email

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