Report: W.Va. not helping cut outside influence in state court elections

By Jessica M. Karmasek | Oct 27, 2011

WASHINGTON -- West Virginia's failure to fully fund a public financing program for the state Supreme Court of Appeals election next year was a setback in the effort to reduce the influence of special interests in state court elections, according to a national report released Thursday.

The report, entitled "The New Politics of Judicial Elections: 2009-2010," was written by the Justice at Stake Campaign, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

"In West Virginia and elsewhere, critically needed reforms either stalled or were even reversed," Bert Brandenburg, executive director of the nonpartisan Justice at Stake, said in a statement.

"In many states, a renewed effort is needed to ensure that courts are widely seen as fair and impartial."

The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals Public Campaign Financing Pilot Program passed the state Legislature during the 2010 regular session.

The pilot program created a public campaign finance program for the 2012 election cycle, funded through attorney fees, special court fees and funds from the purchasing card administration fund of the state Auditor's Office.

The pilot program's aim was to ensure that individuals and committees who contribute large sums of money don't have an undue influence on the political process.

It also looked to prevent further controversy.

In 2004, former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship spent $3 million to help current Justice Brent Benjamin defeat then-incumbent Warren McGraw.

Five years later, in a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Benjamin to recuse himself from a case involving Massey because of Blankenship's contributions.

The pilot program's fund, while it was growing, still was considered underfunded by judicial reform advocates.

So, in March, the state's Senate Judiciary Committee gave the OK to a bill, House Bill 2732, that proposed increasing fees on court filings and lawyers.

However, on the last day of the legislative session, Senate Finance Committee members squashed the measure. The bill would have nearly doubled the amount of money in the program's fund for the 2012 Supreme Court race.

And while $3 million remains in the fund, reform advocates say it's not enough.

"We had hoped that additional funding for the pilot project would reassure potential candidates of their ability to mount a credible campaign," Carol Warren, coordinator for the West Virginia Citizens for Clean Elections Coalition, said in a statement. "Having candidates view the program as underfunded could certainly be a deterrent to participation."

According to Thursday's report, state high court candidates and special interest groups nationally spent $38.4 million in the 2009-10 judicial election cycle, and a growing portion of that money was spent by a small number of "secretive" special interest groups.

The $38.4 million was somewhat less than the amount spent in the last non-presidential election cycle, but the role of special interests grew.

Independent spending by non-candidate groups represented nearly 30 percent of all election spending, compared with 19 percent in 2005-06. Moreover, $16.8 million was spent on television advertising, making 2009-10 the costliest non-presidential cycle for such spending in judicial elections, the report said.

In West Virginia, spending in the state's one high court race was much lower than in 2004 and 2008.

The candidates, incumbent Justice Thomas McHugh and Circuit Court Judge John Yoder, raised a total of $306,000 and television election ad spending was estimated at $26,000, according to the report.

For a complete copy of the report, visit

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