Ron Gregory: Court situation can make one’s head spin

August 19, 2018

I said to a 40-year political friend the other day, “How many times, over the years, have we said ‘It can’t get any stranger than this’? Well, it really can’t get any stranger than the current situation with the state Supreme Court of Appeals.

Anyone who could have predicted the turmoil brought about by five justices in such a short period of time would surely be proclaimed the greatest fortune teller of all time. Even now, in the midst of impeachments, resignations, appointments, special elections and more, I’m not sure anyone has a real handle on this situation.

Think of it. One justice stands indicted by a federal grand jury on 24 counts that seem to grow weekly. Two others have resigned. Another is adamantly declaring she will fight impeachment to the end and the fifth and newest member has little to say at all.

I could ask questions all day and probably not resolve issues that are being debated about this situation. It is clear that the two now-resigned justices will be replaced on a temporary basis by Gov.Jim Justice. Then, voters, on Nov. 6, will choose who finishes their unexpired terms. Although I am not a lawyer, I do not think an earlier decision in the Bob Kiss case precludes the governor from appointing either former Kanawha Del. Tim Armstead or Rep. Evan Jenkins.

Retired Justice Menis Ketchum’s term will have two years remaining; retired Justice Robin Davis had six years left. Candidates must consider that when filing.

As state law requires, Secretary of State Mac Warner has designated races for “Division One” (Ketchum) and “Division Two” (Davis). Complicating things further is the fact that the filing deadline for both is midnight this coming Tuesday.

When the first five candidates filed, there was only the Ketchum vacancy. Thus, those five were listed as simply running for Supreme Court. With the Davis retirement, the “one” and “two” designation came along. By afternoon Wednesday, I asked Warner’s communications director, Mike Queen, what happened if one of the first five decided they want to run for “Division Two.” He said they were being given until 5 p.m., to decide that. By noon, Thursday, all were still listed in Division One.

The question in my mind is why there needs to be two divisions. While I concede that Warner is likely following the law, I think this two-division system has inherent flaws.

I would prefer to see all candidates run in the same race with the top two finishers being declared winners. As it stands now, a candidate can wait until the filing deadline and pick what they believe would be the easiest race to win.

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There are requirements when it comes to a non-partisan board of education that may or may not apply to a non-partisan court race. A Kanawha County public service district member was forced to give up his appointed position on the PSD after he was elected to the non-partisan school board. At what point, then, must Rep. Jenkins give up his congressional seat? It was eventually ruled that it was not even proper for a public service district board member to run for a non-partisan school board seat. Is it okay for Jenkins, a Republican congressman, to be in a non-partisan judge contest? Must he resign from Congress the moment he files, if he does?

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If I was a state senator right now, I’d sure be hoping the remaining justices resign. Politically, impeaching them is going to be a tough vote. If a Democrat senator up for re-election votes to convict Justices Loughry and Walker, both known Republicans, but not Workman, a Democrat, that may be difficult to explain to voters.

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One oft-repeated rumor as the House debated impeachment this week was that one justice had called House members lobbying for “no” votes on impeachment.

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Many politicians are good public servants. West Virginia has had great Supreme Court justices. The entirety of government service should not be judged by the few bad apples that made their way onto the Supreme Court simultaneously.

Contact Ron Gregory at 304-533-5185 or ronjgregory@gmail.com.

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