CHARLESTON – This year West Virginia’s judicial elections are nonpartisan. Candidates for the West Virginia Supreme Court as well as our circuit courts, family courts and magistrates will no longer be listed on your ballot as Democrats, Republicans or members of other political parties.
Like other nonpartisan races, such as your local school board, judicial elections will be decided in the primary election on May 10.
The West Virginia Legislature’s Republican leaders made this change last year when it passed HB 2010. House Speaker Tim Armstead said that the change is a “great step forward in making the judicial system more fair to plaintiffs and defendants alike ... that is one branch of government that I think above all others should be above partisan politics."
If that’s the case, then serious questions need to be asked about why the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) is spending more than $700,000 on television ads attacking Darrell McGraw and Bill Wooton, the two Democrats running for the West Virginia Supreme Court.
The RSLC ad attacking McGraw mirrors the negative ads Republican special interests ran against him in his 2012 partisan race for attorney general, and the attack on Wooton is just as bad. The RSLC’s total behind these attacks will probably top $1 million by election day.
So much for “nonpartisan elections.”
It’s even more outrageous that it’s a Republican superPAC spending that kind of money to attack Democratic candidates when it has been the Republicans who have pushed for nonpartisan elections since 2000.
Gov. Cecil Underwood called for nonpartisan Supreme Court elections in his State of the State that year, and it was part of his legislative package. Republican senators and delegates introduced the legislation every single year.
Last year it legislation was passed by the House on a vote of 90 – 9, with one not voting. In the Senate, it passed 33 – 1. Both Democratic and Republican legislators believed that nonpartisan elections would help protect the integrity of our state courts.
The real problem is the big money being spent by special interests to influence our judicial elections. The move from partisan to nonpartisan elections does nothing to change that.
In fact, evidence shows that has been the case in other states with nonpartisan judicial elections as well.
For example, in 2006 the Georgia state Republicans spent more than $2 million in a judicial race there attacking an incumbent justice who had been appointed by a Democratic governor.
The RSLC buy proves that special interests, partisanship and big money are still at play in West Virginia’s nonpartisan race too.
From 2000 to 2012, more than $11 million was raised by Supreme Court candidates. Millions more were spent in independent expenditures. The 2004 race brought national media attention, and it was the 2009 Caperton v. Massey case that led the U. S. Supreme Court to rule that this special interest money can undermine the right to a fair and impartial hearing.
The state addressed the issue of candidate contributions with the 2010 passage of the Public Campaign Financing Act for the Supreme Court. In 2015, the Legislature made our judicial elections nonpartisan.
These changes are critical first steps, but we must do more to address the big money still weighing our judicial elections down.
First, the Legislature must improve campaign finance disclosure requirements. Special interests fund campaign ads, but hide their names behind front groups. West Virginia voters have the right to know who is funding these big independent expenditure campaigns and why.
Second, the public financing programming should be expanded to all judicial elections.
A fair trial is one of the most fundamental rights we have as Americans. We are all supposed to be equal. Regardless of the type of case you have or what side you are on, there should be no question that everyone in that courtroom is on a level playing field. That right should never be questioned.
The Legislature has made important changes to our judicial elections to help ensure that right is protected, but it must do more. That begins with meaningful campaign disclosure laws for independent expenditures.
Flanigan is the president of the West Virginia Association for Justice.