Editor's Note: Candidates for West Virginia Supreme Court Division 1 spoke to West Virginia Public Broadcasting and the Stubblefield Institute for Civil Political Communications at Shepherd University as part of a forum featuring candidates from each of the three divisions in this year’s election.
The June 9 primary will decide three seats on the bench of the state’s highest court. Eleven candidates across three divisions are vying for the open seats on West Virginia’s Supreme Court of Appeals.
The election decides two 12-year terms and the four remaining years left on the other term. Voters’ choices will have a significant impact on the state’s legal realm for some time. Division 1 is one of the races that will decide a 12-year term on the bench of the state’s high court.
As the top court in the state, the five justices who sit on the West Virginia Supreme Court hear appeals of decisions over all matters decided in the circuit courts, including criminal convictions heard in magistrate court and appeals from administrative agencies, according to information on the court’s website. The court also hears appeals of decisions decided in family court if both parties agree that they will not appeal directly to the circuit court. The court also decides workers’ compensation appeals.
Chief Justice Tim Armstead was appointed to the West Virginia Supreme Court in August 2018 by Gov. Jim Justice, following the resignation of justices who were involved in a scandal related to lavish spending on office renovations and other misappropriation of state funds. Armstead went on to win and keep the seat after a special election that November.
Armstead, who is also a former Speaker of the West Virginia House of Delegates, said he feels the court has come a long way since that scandal in 2018.
“I think we've made tremendous progress, as I mentioned, in putting in place the types of guidelines and expectations — from an ethical standpoint — good necessary, not only for the Supreme Court, but throughout our court system,” Armstead said. “I think we need to, first of all, make sure we follow those and that we have the right checks and balances in place to make sure they're being followed, and I think we've done that.”
Some candidates in the race for Division 1 say it takes the Supreme Court too long to resolve cases, but Armstead said he disagrees.
“I think we're very much consistent with our Constitution which says that the court should look at cases and decide cases, and that they can decide a case whenever they believe there's a proper point for consideration,” he said. “ So I disagree that we're behind. I think we're getting our work done efficiently.”
Former Justice Richard Neely has already once served on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals from 1973 to 1995 and has also served as Chief Justice. He says court reforms are not a concern for most residents of the state.
“The average person doesn't give a damn about things like accountability, transparency. They don't even know what the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals is. They have absolutely no idea how the court system is administered unless they are lawyers or people who are involved somehow in the government,” Neely said. “What they want is good results. They want a system that gives them speed — a just decision — in a reasonable period of time.”
Now, in a bid for a second stint on the bench, Neely is concerned about the rising number of abuse and neglect cases in the state, and he says the supreme court has become inefficient over the last decade.
“Our Constitution lays out a very good, expeditious way of handling appeals. It worked very well for 150 years,”Neely said “The court for some strange reason, back in 2010, decided to mess with it.”
Neely is referring to Article Eight, Section Four of the West Virginia Constitution, which explains scope and form of decisions. In 2010, the court changed its rules to hear all cases that came before the high court, rather than choose which cases to hear.
Judge David Hummel, Jr. is another candidate trying to unseat Armstead in Division 1. Hummel oversees cases in West Virginia’s 2nd Circuit, which covers Marshall, Tyler and Wetzel Counties. He touted his more than a decade of service as a circuit court and treatment court judge.
“The experience I've gained through that, I believe is invaluable and something our state needs to further advance its attack — its defenses — against mental health and drug addiction issues,” he said
Hummel said he respects the careers of both Armstead and Neely, but said experience as a circuit court judge is key to positively impacting the state’s court system.
“Even the manager of McDonald's knows how to cook the fries. So I think a ground-up approach to being a Supreme Court justice is the time and energy I've put in being a circuit judge [and] making those decisions that affect lives,” Hummel said.
Hummel said the decisions that judges make on the circuit court level — such as whether a person is able to be sentenced to jail or able to be with their family — is an important element to taking on the job as a Supreme Court justice.
“These are heavy decisions that I've experienced and have been making for the last 12 years.”
The Republican State Leadership Committee’s Judicial Fairness Initiative has spent more than $300,000 in support of Armstead. The group has also spent more than $600,000 to oppose Neely.
Re Set West Virginia — another independent expenditure attempting to influence the Supreme Court elections — has spent more than $220,000 opposing Armstead and more than $190,000 supporting Neely.
Neither group spent money supporting or opposing Hummel in Division 1.
To learn more about candidates for the West Virginia Supreme Court, tune in Thursday, June 4 at 6 p.m. for a two-hour candidate forum that includes nine of the 10 jurists running across the three divisions. That program airs on West Virginia Public Broadcasting television stations and will also be available online at wvpublic.org.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the name of Reset West Virginia as Restart West Virginia.