By RICHIE HEATH

CHARLESTON -- With Judge Irene Berger's appointment to the federal bench, West Virginians can now only hope and wait to see if her successor follows in the judge's highly respected footsteps.

Judge Berger is widely praised as a fair and impartial judge, one of the best our county has to offer. It is important for both the Kanawha Valley, and our state, that her replacement bring a similarly even-handed approach to the bench.

The role of a judge is to be fair and impartial, to apply the law equally without bias towards one party or another. But far too often, West Virginia has garnered a national reputation for bias in its courts and judicial activism. For the last several years, West Virginia's courts have ranked as the least fair in the nation.

We've witnessed first-hand many notable examples of judges and justices who are much too willing to "fight" on behalf of particular interests – to the detriment of equal justice under the law and public faith in our courts. And while the state Supreme Court typically garners the most attention, state circuit courts play an essential role in the Mountain State's legal climate. With no automatic right of appeal in West Virginia, circuit judges are often the final authority on most litigation. Circuit judges also play a key gate-keeping role in determining whether out-of-state lawsuits or questionable "expert" testimony are allowed in our courts.

Our state's reputation, and struggling job base, will not improve until we move away from this misinformed idea that judges are supposed to change rather than apply the law. West Virginians would be better served in the future by judicial recommendations focusing on candidates' sense of fairness and legal qualifications, rather than their political advocacy for one interest group or another.

This past week, Governor Joe Manchin's Independent Commission on Judicial Reform recommended the creation of an intermediate court of appeals, with its judges to be appointed by the Governor. The Commission has also recommended that the West Virginia Legislature codify the rules relating to appointments made by the Governor to fill judicial vacancies, citing the need for greater transparency and public involvement in the appointment process.

Consequently, the pending appointment of Judge Berger's successor will send an important message about the future of our state courts. West Virginians are paying closer attention than ever to both the process and outcome for filling this circuit court vacancy. Public support for the future appointment of judges may well rest on how this much-publicized appointment is handled. So far, the reviews have been mixed to say the least. Greater transparency, bi-partisanship and public involvement would have helped the process along. But Kanawha County voters will make the ultimate decision, as 2010 is already shaping up for an election showdown amongst the nominees. Time will tell which process worked best.

Heath is executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse.

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