Candidates oppose politicizing WV judiciary
EDITOR’S NOTE:This is the second of two articles profiling the candidates running for the two open West Virginia Supreme Court seats in the general election. The first article appeared in Friday’s edition of The Herald-Dispatch.
CHARLESTON — Despite a diversity of backgrounds, eight of the 10 candidates for the West Virginia Supreme Court seat vacated by retired Justice Robin Davis agreed on the need to restore integrity to the court, to avoid politicization of the judicial branch, and address concerns over the state’s opioid drug abuse crisis.
The candidates, running in the Division 2 race in the Nov. 6 special election, were interviewed by Charleston Gazette-Mail editors Wednesday.
Jim Douglas, a Kanawha Family Court judge, said he is running because the forced retirement of Davis and potential removal of Justice Margaret
Workman by the state Senate would leave the court without expertise on family law.
“Nothing is more important than the family to me,” he said. “We need somebody on the court who has experience in family law.”
Former Senate President Jeff Kessler, who has practiced law in Glen Dale, West Virginia, for “37 uninterrupted years,” said he is running because he doesn’t want to see a court stacked with political appointees.
“Quite frankly, I’m very concerned about the perception of the court and the politicization of the court,” said Kessler, who ran for governor in 2016 and lost to current Gov. Jim Justice in the Democratic primary. Kessler pledged to be fair, open and honest as a justice.
Brenden Long, who has a private practice in Hurricane, West Virginia, said he wants to see integrity and justice restored to the court, and said, in light of recent controversies over court spending, the public deserves transparency in the court’s budget.
“They deserve to know how the money is being spent and where it’s being spent,” he said.
Dennise Smith, a Charleston lawyer who specializes in employment law, said she wants to help restore the court to its sacred duty to be unbiased and impartial.
“When the governor appointed two career politicians to sit on the court based strictly on their party and based upon their conservative values, that made the court a political institution,” she said, referring to Justice’s appointments of former House of Delegates Speaker Tim Armstead and former Congressman Evan Jenkins to the bench.
William Schwartz, a Charleston lawyer who specializes in mesothelioma cases, said he is concerned that the fundamental issue of public access to the courts is at stake.
“There’s a reason why millions of dollars are coming into West Virginia, our little state, to control our court,” he said of gray-money campaigns. “The purpose is to put the majority of West Virginians on the menu, because they’re not at the table.”
Schwartz filed a lawsuit attempting to invalidate Justice’s appointments of Jenkins and Armstead to the Supreme Court. A temporary Supreme Court, made up of circuit judges from around the state, rejected his suit.
Marty Sheehan, a former assistant U.S. attorney now in private practice in Wheeling, agreed that the court should not be politicized.
“It’s about integrity, as everyone else has said, and that’s something where I have a documented track record,” he said.
Boone Circuit Judge William Thompson, a strong advocate for expanding drug courts, said he’s running because he’s angry and upset about recent court controversies — but for a somewhat different reason.
“At the same time the story is breaking about the couch and things of that nature, I’m getting letters and emails from the court that I need to lay off probation officers, and that really made me angry,” he said. “The fact we can go out and buy $32,000 couches but are laying off staff people that can actually save people’s lives.”
Robert Frank, a Lewisburg, West Virginia, attorney, stressed that he is the only candidate with significant experience in constitutional law.
“I have a significant breadth of experience dealing with complex cases that I think the Supreme Court needs,” he said. “It saddens me to know the people of West Virginia have lost faith and confidence in their Supreme Court.”
At one point, the discussion turned to the state’s opioid drug abuse crisis and how it affects the state court system with criminal trials, abuse and neglect cases, and foster care placements.
Noting how the crisis has touched the lives of many West Virginians, Kessler noted that when he helped fund the state’s first drug court as Senate president, he did not anticipate that one of the first graduates of that court would be his eldest son.
“I worked like the dickens to save his life, and I’ll work like the dickens to save lives of other young people in the state as well,” he said.
Long noted that in his criminal law practice, drug abuse is a factor in 90 percent of the cases.
“I don’t think we’ve found a solution yet,” he said of the crisis.
Thompson said he has seen the numbers of abuse and neglect cases skyrocket, and said the causes of parental neglect have gone from poverty or mental illness to opioid abuse.
He said there are more than 7,000 children in foster care and probably twice that many living with grandparents or aunts and uncles without going through the courts because their parents cannot care for them.
Thompson said he has advocated for creation of a family drug court system, without success to date.
“A lot of that is going to fall on the Supreme Court,” he said. “We are failing our kids right now.”
Frank agreed, noting, “This crisis has invaded every aspect of our society.”
Another candidate, Jim O’Brien, could not attend Wednesday’s interview because of a family medical issue. Jenkins, appointed by Justice to the Supreme Court, was hearing cases Wednesday.
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