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West Virginia Supreme Court candidates participate in forum

The current West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals is made up of (from left to right) Justice Margaret Workman, Justice Evan Jenkins, Chief Justice Elizabeth Walker, Justice John Hutchison, and Justice Tim Armstead. (Source: WVSUPCO)
The current West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals is made up of (from left to right) Justice Margaret Workman, Justice Evan Jenkins, Chief Justice Elizabeth Walker, Justice John Hutchison, and Justice Tim Armstead. (Source: WVSUPCO)(WHSV)
Published: Jun. 5, 2020 at 3:42 PM EDT
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Nearly a half-century ago, West Virginia voters approved a constitutional amendment to allow the creation of an intermediate court system. Legislators ever since have rejected such a move, and several candidates for the state Supreme Court said during a forum broadcast Thursday night that such a court is unnecessary.

“The state does not have a crying need for another level of the judiciary,” Beckley attorney Bill Wooton said. "I believe it's wrong to saddle the taxpayers with the expense of an additional level.”

Some candidates appearing in the forum, which was recorded last week, said the Supreme Court has been able to manage its current caseload. Others said an intermediate court would add costs and hurdles to litigants and that the money to fund the system should be used elsewhere.

"We don’t need it. We can't afford it," said Charleston attorney Bill Schwartz.

Schwartz said the money would be better spent helping the more than 7,000 children in the state's overburdened foster care system.

Former Supreme Court Justice Richard Neely, who is seeking a seat again in Tuesday's election, said the intermediate court proposal is “designed to destroy the justice system.”

Several candidates agreed that it's the legislature's decision and they would abide by that.

Lawmakers have made it a perennial issue. An intermediate court bill was killed in the legislature in March after opponents argued the state’s declining caseloads and tight budget didn’t warrant a new layer of courts. Some Republicans said the intermediate court would strengthen the state’s appeals process and provide more precedents clarifying the state’s position on legal questions.

“It is really fair to add a layer of cost to litigants and add another period of delay?” said Kanawha County Family Court Judge Jim Douglas.

Nine of the 10 candidates running for three seats on the court on Tuesday appeared in the forum, which was hosted by Shepherd University and West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Candidates appeared by video from their homes or offices.

The candidates also answered questions on a variety of topics including judicial pay, the role of technology in the courts and the use of political ads in a nonpartisan election. Judicial elections in West Virginia became nonpartisan in 2016.

Several candidates disagreed on the question of whether Supreme Court justices should have prior experience on the bench before being elected.

Chief Justice Tim Armstead, a former House speaker, will face Neely and northern panhandle circuit judge David Hummel for a 12-year seat on the court. Armstead is serving out the term of convicted former Justice Menis Ketchum,

Four other candidates are hoping to win a 12-year term for the seat being vacated by Justice Margaret Workman, who is not seeking re-election. They are Douglas, Wooton, Kanawha County Circuit Judge Joanna Tabit and Putnam County assistant prosecutor Kris Raynes.

Justice John Hutchison, who was appointed to the seat vacated by convicted former Justice Allen Loughry, is running in a special election for the remainder of Loughry's term through 2024. Hutchison's opponents are Schwartz and Jackson County Circuit Judge Lora Dyer.

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