CHARLESTON -- Judicial elections, and the amount of money spent on them, have been a hotly covered topic in West Virginia for many years now.
Since our state's enormously expensive 2004 Supreme Court race - which saw millions of dollars in spending from candidates and outside groups on both sides of the political aisle -- personal injury lawyers and many others alike have called for reforms that would help reduce the influence of special interest money on our state's highest court.
Lawmakers responded to the perceived problem, in part, by passing a public financing pilot program which was recommended by then-Gov. Joe Manchin's Independent Commission on Judicial Reform. The public financing program was praised by many, including The New York Times and the personal injury lawyer backed West Virginia Association for Justice -- which called the pilot program a "good idea."
Flash forward two years, and only one of the four remaining candidates for Supreme Court this year -- Republican Allen Loughry -- has elected to use the public financing pilot program. Nominee John Yoder opted out of the public financing program, citing the difficulty of raising the necessary qualifying contributions. And yet "special interest" money still plays a significant role in this year's Court race.
That's because personal-injury lawyer backed nominees Robin Davis and Tish Chafin have tapped into their considerable family wealth, a by-product of both their families' extremely successful personal injury law firms. To date, Justice Davis has loaned her campaign more than $350,000, while Tish Chafin has put in a whopping $1 million of personal funds. Personal injury lawyers have also contributed nearly $200,000 to the two candidates' campaigns, which accounts for approximately 40% of their total campaign contributions.
Anticipating this exact situation in which individually wealthy candidates could otherwise overwhelm public financing participants, and perpetuate the perception that justice is for sale in West Virginia, state lawmakers included provisions that provide additional funding for outspent candidates. However, those provisions are now being challenged in a lawsuit filed by a group of personal injury lawyers wanting to support the Chafin and Davis campaigns.
Regardless of one's position as to the merits of public financing, you can't help but appreciate the irony that some of the very people that have railed against "special interest" spending in state court elections have now filed a lawsuit to essentially kill the program that was aimed to reduce the impact of those "special interests" on our judicial elections.
So what gives with the sudden about face by West Virginia's personal injury bar? How can the public financing program their organization once hailed as a "good idea" now be so bad? It's clearly a case of self interest, as one of the attorneys challenging the public financing pilot program is the very same campaign attorney for candidate Tish Chafin. West Virginia's personal injury lawsuit industry sees its opportunity to recapture a seat on the Supreme Court, and they aren't going to let their previously stated principles of fairness get in the way.
Chafin's husband -- state Senator Truman Chafin -- once expressed great outrage with regard to spending in Supreme Court elections, proclaiming that "one court candidate should not be handcuffed, while the other has powerful friends." Now that the shoe is on the other foot, Senator Chafin apparently has no qualms with handcuffing the ability of other candidates to compete with vast sums of personal injury wealth.
While the future of West Virginia's public financing pilot program is unclear, we can at least finally put to rest the charade of personal injury lawyer interests calling for court elections to be cleaned up. They had their chance, but the lawyers' own self interest ultimately seems to have prevailed.
Heath is the executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse.