CHARLESTON – All five state Supreme Court justices have recused themselves from hearing appeals regarding the public campaign finance of two candidates for the court.
On March 9, Chief Justice Menis Ketchum appointed Senior Status Judge Thomas H. Keadle to serve as acting chief justice in the appeals of incumbent Justice Brent Benjamin and former state lawmaker Bill Wooton. Beth Walker, another Supreme Court candidate, argued neither of them should have received public finance money from the State Election Commission.
After he was named acting chief justice, Keadle appointed Fayette Circuit Judge John Hatcher, Ohio Circuit Judge James Mazzone, Mason Circuit Judge Thomas C. Evans III and Senior Status Judge James O. Holliday to sit with him as temporary justices on the cases.
Both cases are set to be heard March 23.
On March 8, Benjamin said he would appeal Kanawha Circuit Judge Tod Kaufman's ruling that found his re-election campaign ineligible for public campaign financing money for his bid for re-election. They asked Kaufman to stay his ruling while the appeal take place.
In his decision last week, Kaufman found that the SEC's earlier decision to certify Benjamin for public campaign financing was erroneous, and he reversed the SEC decision.
Benjamin’s attorneys said in the motion that the case involves issues of first impression that are sharply contested by both parties and that the Benjamin campaign maintains that the SEC did not abuse its discretion in certifying him for public financing.
"Justice Benjamin will therefore by filing an immediate appeal to the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia, seeking to have the State Election Commission’s decision in this case reinstated," the motion states.
Kaufman found that Benjamin’s campaign missed deadlines for filing the application for certification and a report of exploratory campaign contributions, which were issues that Walker’s campaign also raised during the SEC hearing, but those issues were ruled as invalid by the commissioners.
The Supreme Court has also been asked to decide whether the SEC’s decision to allow Bill Wooton, another candidate for Supreme Court, to use public campaign financing money should be upheld, as Walker also filed a lawsuit challenging that decision.
The lawsuit against Wooton was assigned to Circuit Judge Charles E. King, and King agreed March 7 to send the issue directly to the Supreme Court in a certified question.
In certifying public campaign financing money for Wooton last month, SEC commissioners ruled that they had the discretion to give Wooton the money, despite him being a day late in asking for it.
This is the second election in which public financing has been used. Supreme Court Justice Allen Loughry used public financing in 2012 during the pilot program.
West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals case numbers 16-0228 (Benjamin) and 16-0226 (Wooton)