Candidates for the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals Division 2 have expressed remarkably different ideas about what the state’s high court should focus on. The winner, who will serve a full 12-year term, will replace the seat currently held by Justice Margaret Workman.
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.
Those running for Division 2 include a family court judge, an assistant prosecutor, a circuit court judge and a former state senator — all of whom spoke to West Virginia Public Broadcasting and the Stubblefield Institute for Civil Political Communications at Shepherd University for a candidate forum recorded last week. It will air Thursday June 4 at 6 p.m. on WVPB television stations.
Judge Jim Douglas hears cases in the state’s Eleventh Family Court Circuit, which serves Kanawha County. Douglas argues that much of the legal caseload heard by the state’s Supreme Court is made up of proceedings like those he oversees.
“The family law appeals to the West Virginia Supreme Court have, for the last several years, run more than the criminal appeals,” Douglas said. “So, it is absolutely imperative that somebody on the Supreme Court have that experience.”
Although the legislative branch sets judicial salaries, Douglas said he would advocate for pay for those working within the Family Court system to be equal to other parts of the judiciary. He also believes the court should be better connected to residents throughout the state.
Douglas noted that the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals has heard cases in some of the state’s largest municipalities. But, he said there is more that can be done to increase the court’s visibility.
“Why can't you hold court in the courthouses across the other 55 counties — whether it be Grantsville, whether it be Princeton, whether it be Marlinton — and let people see that the Supreme Court [is run by] just people, by real persons, real humans,” he said.
Putnam County Assistant Prosecutor Kristina “Kris” Raynes is also running for a seat on the Supreme Court. She points out that most of the cases in the state’s judicial system do not fall under the jurisdiction of Family Court.
“The large majority of those cases in the family law category — I'm checking the stats right now — are our abuse and neglect cases. Those are not handled by family court judges,” Raynes said. “They're handled by prosecutors and circuit judges. So the majority of cases that the court will hear are criminal appeals and abuse and neglect cases, all handled by prosecutors.”
Raynes acknowledges that, while West Virginia’s Supreme Court elections are nonpartisan, the races are still colored by partisan politics.
“I am the sole conservative in the Division 2 race,” Raynes said. “My opponents all have Democratic political pasts.”
Raynes has been endorsed by the West Virginia Republican Party, West Virginians for Life, the West Virginia Family Policy Council and the Associated Builders and Contractors.
While three of the five sitting judges on the state’s high court have not presided over circuit court, Judge Joanna Tabit argues that experience is necessary. Tabit hears cases in West Virginia’s Thirteenth Judicial Circuit in Kanawha County.
“Now more than ever, as I've said, our court needs proven, qualified judges — and that's why I am running. Basically, the Supreme Court is reviewing the decision of circuit court judges,” Tabit said. “It's important for an individual to have sat at that appellate level to stand at the level I'm at right now as a circuit judge, and made those decisions at the court — [someone who has] called the balls and the strikes.”
Tabit also says the court system has come a long way since the spending scandal that dramatically changes the make-up of the bench in 2018. However, she says there are other reforms that could be implemented, including evaluating the court’s recusal policy.
“I think it's important for a justice who is deciding to sit on a case to explain the reasons why he or she believes it's appropriate for him or her to sit on the case,” Tabit said. And I think it's important for, also, there to be accountability in the rest of the court [by] taking a look at that decision and making a determination as to whether or not that's appropriate.
Bill Wooton of Raleigh County spent 26 years in the West Virginia Legislature, including 10 years as the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Like other candidates for Supreme Court, Wooton acknowledges and is concerned with the vast number of abuse and neglect cases in the state’s judicial system.
“The magnitude of the problem is beyond the scope of the judicial system to deal with it,” Wooton said. “The executive branch and the legislative branch must find more creative and effective methods of dealing with it.”
As the election of judges in West Virginia is nonpartisan, Wooton says that political parties should not interfere by offering endorsements. He also says that the way justices are elected is still problematic.
“I think that having a ‘nonpartisan’ election, coinciding with the primary — and that being the only election — I think that deprives the voters of the opportunity to learn a sufficient amount of knowledge about the candidates to make informed choices,” Wooton said. “It's very tough to communicate with voters in a crowded field, where whoever wins will very likely not achieve a majority.”
The Republican State Leadership Committee’s Judicial Fairness Initiative has spent more than $7,300 supporting Raynes in the race for Division 2.
Re Set West Virginia — another independent expenditure attempting to influence the Supreme Court elections — has spent more than $219,000 in support of Tabit.
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: Division 3 candiate Bill Wooton's last name was misspelled as "Wooten" in an earlier version of this story.