The three candidates running for two seats on the West Virginia Supreme Court met in Morgantown at WVU’s law school Wednesday night. Monongalia County Circuit Court Judge Robert Stone moderated the debate and took questions from the audience.
Questions mainly focused on whether the state Supreme Court needs systematic changes. While each candidate criticized aspects of the system, none think it’s broken.
Democratic candidate Margaret Workman served on the state Supreme Court from 1988 to 2000. She referred to that experience when responding to a question about whether the current court is efficient.
“I served on the Miller court and that court processed more cases than at any time in the history of West Virginia. We worked very hard,” Workman said. The reason that it’s extremely important that the Supreme Court accept and hear a lot of cases is that, as was pointed out, we’re one of only a handful of states that doesn’t have an intermediate appeal court.
"Now, the issue has arisen during the campaign, should we have an intermediate appeal court. It would be nice thing to have, but you know I know a lot about the court system having been there, and like when you run your household, you’ve got to establish your priorities, and I don’t think the establishment of an intermediate appeal court is our highest priority.”
Democratic candidate and Huntington trial lawyer Menis Ketchum criticized the court for not taking more appeals.
“In 1999, our court granted for full hearing and written opinion, 41% of the applications presented to it for appeal. In 2006, they granted 11%, and this year it will probably be 9. There is a problem. They’re not working,” Ketchum said.
Republican candidate Beth Walker was less critical and said she would rather focus on quality over quantity.
“It has to have some time not just be the administrators of our entire court system, and those five justices are ultimately responsible for the administration of our court system, but also to read and consider carefully each and every one of those in 2007 4,000 appeals” said Walker. “That takes time.”
Each candidate was asked if they would take on an initiative if they are elected as a Supreme Court Justice. Walker said improving technology would be a priority.
“The Supreme Court has a pretty good Web site. It’s a little convoluted. It’s a bit of maze to find the briefs filed in cases, but they’re there. I think it’s should be something that’s easy for the public to find, easy for students, easy for anyone involved in litigation and not just at the Supreme Court level but also at the Circuit Court level,” Walker said.
Ketchum said he would like to improve the legal aid program that helps people who cannot afford legal services.
“Poor people in this state get trod upon everyday, because lawyers won’t talk to them. They just will not do it, and I see women coming in my office, dragging two or three kids, and nobody will talk to them. We have a legal aid system that’s not sufficient to protect these people, and they need protected. I don’t know how to do it, of course more funding would help, but we probably can’t do that, but maybe we could have some community service by all the lawyers. Lawyers don’t volunteer anymore, and we need to change it,” said Ketchum.
Workman said justices taking on initiatives started with her and she would continue to focus on family law issues.
“Probably they would continue to be in the realm of making the court system more effective in dealing with children and families who are in trouble,” said Workman.
The candidates were asked about the court’s recusal procedure and whether they think it’s sufficient. Walker says the system works.
“My rule is really very simple,” Walker said. “I will recuse myself if there is a case in which one of my family members is either a party or the lawyer. I will recuse myself from any case that was handled by Bowles-Rice during the time I’ve been a partner; that’s appropriate. I will recuse myself from any case in which Walker Machinery, my husband’s family’s company, is a party.”
Ketchum recommends an independent commission be created to make a final decision on whether a justice should recuse him or herself for a case.
“It’s too much of a burden on a judge when accusations have been made against that judge subconsciously to make that decision, but if a judge refuses then I think there should be an independent commission,” said Ketchum.
Like Walker, Workman says the recusal procedure works, but problems arise when justices don’t follow it. Several polls show Workman leading the race with Walker and Ketchum nearly tied.