CHARLESTON - Kanawha County Circuit Court Judge Louis "Duke" Bloom ruled Thursday that state Sen. Walt Helmick, a candidate for Agriculture Commissioner, can remain on the ballot.

L. Joe Starcher, a retired veterinarian with the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, has argued that Helmick, D-Pocahontas, is unqualified for the job of commissioner because he hasn't made his living from farming, as required under West Virginia Code, Section 19-1-2.

In particular, the state law requires that the commissioner be "a practical farmer, learned in the science of agriculture, and shall have made agriculture his chief business for a period of 10 years immediately preceding his election."

Starcher claims Helmick doesn't meet the requirement.

In his order, Bloom ruled that the section of state code was unconstitutional and not relevant to Helmick's candidacy.

"The West Virginia Constitution does not establish authority for the Legislature to prescribe by law additional qualifications for the office of Commissioner of Agriculture," Bloom wrote.

On Monday, the state Supreme Court of Appeals denied Starcher's petition requesting that Helmick be removed from the race.

Starcher had filed a petition for a writ with the state's high court Feb. 24.

On Monday, the Court issued a brief, two-paragraph order, denying the writ.

"Upon consideration whereof, the Court is of the opinion that a rule should not be awarded, and the writ prayed for by the petitioner is hereby refused as premature, without prejudice for the petitioner to file an appropriate action in circuit court to permit development of an adequate factual record to allow a full and complete consideration of the issues," the justices wrote.

Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, in a statement Thursday, said she appreciated the "timely fashion" in which Bloom provided a resolution.

"We are facing a March 23 deadline to have ballots designed, proofed, printed and delivered," she said.

"This ruling determines that this section of code is unconstitutional, but could be appealed to the West Virginia Supreme Court."

It is unclear whether Starcher will appeal Bloom's ruling.

Helmick, who owns a water bottling business in Marlinton, is one of five Democratic candidates looking to replace longtime Agriculture Commissioner Gus Douglass this year.

The others include Sally Shepherd of Kanawha County, Steve Miller of Mineral County, former state Delegate Bob Tabb and Joe Messineo of Roane County.

The only GOP candidate in the race, Mike Teets, announced last month he was dropping out for personal reasons.

The primary election in West Virginia is May 8, with early voting in person beginning April 25.

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