CHARLESTON – The state Supreme Court says the Supreme Court campaigns of Brent Benjamin and Bill Wooton should get about $500,000 each in public campaign financing money.
The orders were issued just hours after five replacement justices heard oral arguments in the matters.
"The court is of the opinion, based upon the applicable law, that the circuit court’s answer to the certified question as formulated was erroneous," the order in the Wooton case stated, reversing a ruling earlier this month by Kanawha Circuit Judge Charlie King. "Accordingly, the court answers the certified question in the affirmative. The State Election Commission’s order certifying petitioner Wooton as eligible for public campaign financing funds is hereby reinstated and the court reserves the right to reformulate the question in the opinion that will follow in due course."
In the Benjamin case, the justices reversed an order by Kanawha Circuit Judge Tod Kaufman.
"The decision of the State Election Commission certifying Brent D. Benjamin, as eligible to receive public campaign financing funds is hereby reinstated," they wrote.
Darrell Shull with Benjamin's campaign praised the ruling.
"We've always been confident that the SEC ruled appropriately in certifying us to participate," he said. "Ms. Walker's 500-plus frivolous challenges have cost the state a good amount of time and money. We are looking forward to our campaign."
Walker campaign director Joe Reidy disagreed.
"With West Virginia facing the worst budget crisis in history, Brent Benjamin and Bill Wooton have been awarded over $1 million of the taxpayers’ hard earned money to fund their political campaigns," he said. "The appointed Justices of the West Virginia Supreme Court overruled the decisions of two trial court judges that neither candidate had properly followed the law in requesting their $525,000 each of taxpayers’ dollars.
"Beth Walker certainly respects the decision of the court, but will make no apologies for standing up for the rule of law and the taxpayers in filing a challenge to them accessing the money."
Joe Safety, campaign manager for Wooton, said his camp was pleased with the prompt ruling.
“We are disappointed that our opponent hired attorneys from an out-of-state international law firm to file the complaint against our campaign," Safety said. "It forced us to waste valuable time defending ourselves against what were frivolous allegations.
"Today’s ruling is a victory for what is right and an example of how well our system of justice works. It also vividly demonstrates why Mr. Wooton has chosen to be a part of this system throughout his life. Our campaign will continue with the force and confidence with which it started.
"We believe we will prevail on May 10 because Bill Wooton is the most experienced and best qualified candidate in the race. We are pleased that we can get on with the business of further demonstrating that to the people of West Virginia.”
Earlier in the day, the court heard oral arguments in candidate Beth Walker’s challenges to the campaigns.
Five sitting judges – filling in for all of the justices who recused themselves from the case – heard two hours of arguments.
Wooton attorney Bob Bastress argued that the fact Wooton’s campaign missed a legislative rule deadline to file for certification of his public financing with the State Election Commission by a few hours.
“The law in this case has, at its center, the discretion of the State Election Commission,” Bastress said during Wednesday’s oral arguments. “That exercise of discretion was clearly justified.
“The only punishment for Mr. Wooton’s campaign should be that he gets the money a day later.”
Spencer Elliott, who represented the SEC in both cases, said the question at the heart of these cases is whether the guidelines for compliance should be strictly upheld.
“It seemed fair to permit the application for Wooton’s certification one day late,” Elliott said. “The commission viewed its charges … as looking behind pure procedure and to look at what we was being presented.
“The SEC has given discretion. The SEC found there was no violation in permitting the application to be one day late. It allowed the commission to view substance.”
If the court does find that deadlines were missed, Elliott asked the court to remand the matter back to the SEC to determine what the punishment should be, if any.
Thomas Ryan, who represented Walker in the case, also said it all comes down to one question.
“The question here is whether or not the rules in the West Virginia Public Campaign Financing Act matter,” Ryan said. “The state’s decision to get involved into campaign financing for judicial candidates affects all of the candidates.
“There’s no ambiguity. It can’t be liberally construed. There’s no reason to go there.
“The rules were set forth in the statute. The deadlines were clear. He (Wooton) chose not to meet them. … The deadline must be enforced.”
In rebuttal, Bastress said the issue is whether the SEC abused its discretion about the consequences of missing a deadline. And, the SEC decided not to deny certification.
Concerning Benjamin’s appeal, attorney Jonathan Marshall said the question is whether the SEC does it job within practical realities for a relatively new statute.
“The SEC conclusions were supported by law and by facts,” Marshall said. “It isn’t like the Benjamin campaign was acting cavalierly and trying to not comply with the SEC rules.”
All five state Supreme Court justices had recused themselves from hearing the appeals.
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 Benjamin and Wooton, a former state lawmaker.
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.
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, 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 also was asked to decide whether the SEC’s decision to allow Wooton 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)