While the winners of Divisions 1 and 2 for the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals will each serve a full 12-year term on the state’s high court, the winner of Division 3 will serve the remaining four years of an unexpired term.
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.
Candidates from Division 3 — like those running for the other open seats on the bench — spoke to West Virginia Public Broadcasting and the Stubblefield Institute for Civil Political Communications at Shepherd University as part of a forum recorded last week.
Justice John Hutchison was appointed by Gov. Jim Justice in December 2018 to fill the vacancy left by the resignation of Justice Allen Loughry.
Loughry was elected to the Supreme Court in 2012 as a Republican before judicial elections became nonpartisan — but his term was cut short following an investigation into lavish office renovations and using state resources for private gain.
Loughry is currently serving a two-year federal prison sentence for fraud, making false statements and witness tampering related to the scandal. Hutchison is running to keep the seat for the remainder of the term that expires in 2024.
Hutchison said the court has come a long way since his appointment.
“We've implemented 11 separate written policies. You wouldn't have thought we needed some of those policies. Common sense would tell you that you don't drive a car out of state on a golf trip — a state car out of state,” Hutchison said. “But we've done that. And I think that a continued focus on the ethical obligations of judges and attorneys needs to continue.”
Hutchison also says the court can do more to assist in tackling the state’s ongoing problems with opioid addiction.
“The problem we have is 85 percent of $135 million goes to salaries and benefits for all the 1,500 employees that work for the Supreme Court. The court, thereafter, works diligently — and has worked diligently — through grants and other matters to increase our resources,” Hutchison said.
Charleston attorney Bill Schwartz is challenging Hutchuson for the seat. Schwartz agrees that continued reforms need to take place to ensure the Supreme Court is held accountable to taxpayers.
“We’ve got an image issue — and transparency is the key. Maybe even bringing legislative oversight more so than it is,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz contends that reshaping the public’s view of the court means putting an attorney on the bench who has not made a career as a judge or justice. He said he is running to “put a taxpayer among the robes.”
“[I’m] not speaking against any respectable, respected judge and justice, but we have enough judges and politicians. I think one of the things we can do is put a taxpayer among the robes,” he said.
Schwartz also says that there is much more the court can do to curb the opioid crisis and relieve strains on the state’s judicial system.
“If there is discretionary money within there, that needs to be focused on the frontline workers and the frontline people in this crisis are the magistrate courts, the family court, the drug court, and the circuit court judges.,” Schwartz said. “Those people get their hands dirty with it. Those are the people that need the help. That's where the money needs to go.”
Judge Lora Dyer, who serves Jackson, Calhoun, Mason and Roane Counties as a circuit judge in the state’s Fifth Circuit and is also running in Division 3. Dyer did not respond to West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s request for an interview and did not participate in a candidate forum recorded last week.
The Republican State Leadership Committee’s Judicial Fairness Initiative has spent more than $10,000 in support of Dyer.
Re Set West Virginia — another independent expenditure attempting to influence the races for state Supreme Court — has spent more than $215,000 in support of Hutchison.
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.