CHARLESTON – One of the 17 people who applied for the vacant state Supreme Court seat has taken himself out of consideration.
Charleston attorney Gregory Chiartas submitted a letter Dec. 6 to the state Judicial Vacancy Advisory Commission withdrawing from the process. And in his letter, he threw his support to Kanawha Circuit Judge Joanna Tabit for the position.
“Having now had the opportunity to review the list of candidates and their qualifications, I feel that it is in the best interest of the commission, the Supreme Court of Appeals and the citizens of West Virginia for me to withdraw my name from consideration for this vacancy,” Chiartas, a found of Freeman & Chiartas in Charleston, wrote in his letter. “On this occasion, the applicants include three circuit court judges and one family court judge, all offering significant knowledge, experience and appropriate judicial temperament.
“With the difficult job before this committee, it would be unfair for me to continue.”
Chiartas actually made the short list of recommendations the JVAC sent to Gov. Jim Justice this summer when they were tasked with filling the Supreme Court vacancies left by the retirements of Justices Robin Jean Davis and Justice Menis Ketchum.
In an interview with The West Virginia Record, Chiartas said having Tabit, Raleigh Circuit Judge John Hutchison, Senior Status Judge Jim Rowe and Kanawha Family Court Judge Jim Douglas among the applicants was the big determining factor for him to step aside.
“There are three very qualified candidates who are circuit judges, and that was a big factor in my decision,” he said. “Three very good candidates there and one family court judge who can do the job. I had to be candid with myself and say to myself that I had nothing more to offer than they do.”
In his letter, Chiartas praised Tabit as the best candidate.
“I would like the committee to know that I strongly endorse and recommend one candidate in particular, Judge Joanna Tabit,” Chiartas wrote. “As you know, Judge Tabit spent her legal career with the defense firm of Steptoe & Johnson before being appointed and then elected as a judge of the 13th Judicial Circuit.
“Judge Tabit, as a practicing lawyer and judge, has earned the respect of members of both sides of the bar. Her dedication and commitment to a fair and impartial judiciary is without question. Judge Tabit recently ran a positive and largely successful campaign for a seat on the Supreme Court and on November 6, 2018, received the third-highest vote total (110,340) among a large and geographically wide-reaching group of candidates. To me, this not only illustrates her hard work, persistence and dedication but the trust of West Virginia citizens.
“In my opinion, she has earned very strong consideration. Finally, it is important for you to know that until copying her on this letter, Judge Tabit was not aware of my withdrawal or endorsement.”
Chiartas later said Tabit simply is the best candidate on the list of applicants.
“Not only does she have what it takes a circuit judge, she’s well-respected by everyone,” he told The Record. “She was very fair as an attorney, and she is very fair on the bench.
“And during her Supreme Court campaign, she really hit the pavement running. She had a short time to do it, and she garnered 110,000 votes. I think that shows the people wanted her. I just feel like the respectful thing to do for her and for the committee is to step aside.”
He also praised Hutchison, Rowe and Douglas.
“Hutchison has been a judge for a long time,” Chiartas said. “I’ve appeared before him, and he’s always been fair. I don’t recall appearing before Judge Rowe, but I’ve heard nothing but good things about him. And Jim Douglas is a smart man. He would very carefully consider things.”
Tabit was gracious when she read the letter Chiartas sent to the JVAC.
“I’ve worked with Greg before both as an attorney and judge, and I’m honored to have the endorsement of someone I respect both professionally and personally,” she told The Record.
Chiartas’ endorsement is the second Tabit has received this week from applicants and former Supreme Court candidates.
On Dec. 3, Charleston attorney Dennise Smith said she was behind Tabit. Smith was the fourth-highest vote-getter in last month’s Supreme Court races.
Smith said her supporters had asked her to run apply for the newest vacancy left by the resignation of former Justice Allen Loughry. Instead, she asked her supporters to get behind Tabit as well.
“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,” Smith wrote in a post on her campaign Facebook page. “This is the most logical, fair and the best result for our Supreme Court.”
Others who applied for the seat formerly held by Loughry are Robert Carlton of Charleston, Bradley Crouser of Charleston, Lee Feinberg of Charleston, Robert Frank of Lewisburg, Brendan Long of Scott Depot, Louis Palmer of Charleston, 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 Jenkins, both of whom already had been appointed to those seats by Gov. 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.
Douglas is a Kanawha Family Court Judge. Rowe is a former circuit judge in Greenbrier and Pocahontas counties who is working as Senior Status Judge in Nicholas County. 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.