CHARLESTON – Just a month ago, Charleston attorney Dennise Smith and Kanawha Circuit Judge Joanna Tabit both were fighting to win spots on the state Supreme Court.
Now, Smith is throwing her support behind Tabit to temporarily fill another seat on the court.
Dec. 3 was the deadline to apply for the vacancy left behind by former Allen Loughry’s resignation. Also on that day, Smith posted a message on her campaign Facebook page lending her support to Tabit.
“Many of you have been reaching out to share kind words about my race for the Supreme Court and have encouraged me to apply for the new vacancy that the governor will soon be filling by temporary appointment,” Smith wrote. “Thank you first and foremost for continuing to support and have faith in me. After giving it some long and serious thought, I have decided not to apply.”
Smith went on to explain that she was critical of Gov. Jim Justice’s decision to appoint former U.S. Representative Evan Jenkins and former House of Delegates Speaker Tim Armstead to those seats that were on the ballot. She said those appointments were “based purely on party affiliation and despite the fact that neither had any significant litigation experience.”
“Given the number of highly qualified and experienced practicing attorneys who were recommended as candidates, it appeared to many in the legal community that one’s qualifications for the position was simply not a factor for the governor,” Smith wrote. “The appointees obtained endorsements from the president despite this being, by law, a non-partisan election and a non-partisan position. And they both received over $800,000 in TV ads sponsored by the Republican Party. These two appointments went on to win their elections. The people of West Virginia have spoken.”
But, Smith said she believes the state Supreme Court belongs to the people, not politicians.
“It is my opinion that the people have also spoken as to who should fill Justice Loughry’s spot,” Smith wrote. “That would be the third highest vote-getter among both races: The Honorable Joanna Tabit, Circuit Court Judge of Kanawha County, who ran in Division 1.”
Smith said Tabit is “imminently qualified, well-respected in the legal community” and “has the highest ethical standards.
“She is one of the most beloved judges in our area, and I am proud to call her my friend,” Smith wrote. “Not only does she embody all traits a judge should have, but selecting her would allow the governor to improve his rather abysmal record on diversity appointments.
“So, instead of me submitting an application, I am asking you all to call Governor Justice and ask him to appoint Judge Joanna Tabit to fill the open unexpired spot on the Supreme Court. This is the most logical, fair and the best result for our Supreme Court.”
Tabit was gracious of Smith’s move, sharing it on Facebook and paraphrasing Will Ferrell’s Ron Burgundy character from “Anchorman,” saying, “You stay classy, Dennise Smith. Thank you so much!”
“Dennise and I have known each other for years, and I really enjoyed seeing her on the campaign,” Tabit also told The West Virginia Record. “I’ve always been thankful for her friendship and am incredibly thankful for her support.”
Smith was the fourth highest vote-getter overall in the two elections last month. And she said she plans to run for one of the three open seats for the court that will be on the 2020 ballot.
She said her campaign theme was that the Supreme Court belongs to the people. And she thinks the people spoke Nov. 6 when Tabit received the most votes behind Jenkins and Armstead.
"A lot of my supporters from the campaign were telling me I should apply," Smith told The Record. "But, I think the best thing for the court is to call and support Joanna. This would be the best appointment for the health of the judiciary.
"The governor has a chance to affect the will of the people. There are a number of extraordinarily qualified people on the list of those who applied. But, no one would find fault with Joanna's qualifications. She’s dedicated to the office. She's one of the best judges we’ve had, in my experience."
In addition to Tabit, the following people applied for the seat formerly held by Loughry: Robert Carlton of Charleston, Gregory Chiartis of Charleston, Bradley Crouser of Charleston, James Douglas of Charleston, Lee Feinberg of Charleston, Robert Frank of Lewisburg, John Hutchison of Beckley, Brendan Long of Scott Depot, Louis Palmer of Charleston, Jim Rowe of Lewisburg, William Schwartz of Charleston, Mark Sorsaia of Hurricane, Harry Taylor of Charleston, Joseph Wallace of Elkins, Rusty Webb of Charleston and Bill Wooton of Beckley.
Six of those applicants – Carlton, Douglas, Frank, Long, Schwartz and Tabit – were on the ballot last month for two seats on the bench. Armstead and Evan, both of whom already had been appointed to those seats by Gov. Jim Justice, won those elections.
Hutchison and Tabit currently are circuit judges in Raleigh and Kanawha Counties, respectively. Hutchison is a longtime personal friend of Justice who delivered the oath of office when Justice was inaugurated in 2017. Tabit received the highest number of votes behind Jenkins and Armstead in last month's Supreme Court races.
Douglas is a Kanawha Family Court Judge. Rowe is a former circuit judge in Greenbrier and Pocahontas counties. Sorsaia is Putnam County's Prosecuting Attorney. Wooton is a former legislator.
The person picked by Justice will serve until the next judicial election, which is May 2020. The person who wins that race will serve until December 2024, which is when Loughry's term was scheduled to end.
The JVAC will conduct interviews for the vacancy Dec. 11.
This round of interviews will be for someone to fill the seat of Loughry, who resigned earlier this month after he was found guilty on 11 federal felony counts of wire fraud, mail fraud, witness tampering and lying to federal agents. He faced impeachment before his resignation, and he still must go before the state Judicial Investigation Commission to answer charges of 32 counts of misconduct.
His federal sentencing is scheduled for January.