By Ron Gregory
CHARLESTON – The names of those selected by the state Judicial Vacancy Advisory Commission have been confirmed as it relates to an open Family Court judge position in Kanawha County.
Kanawha Family Court Judge Mike Kelly announced his retirement earlier this year. Of significance was the fact that Kelly made the resignation effective Saturday. Political observers said the reason Kelly chose that date is that it is less than 84 days before the general election.
That date sets up a process by which Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin makes the ultimate appointment to fill the unexpired Kelly term. The term would run through the end of 2016. Significantly, Tomblin appointed former Mingo County Family Court Judge Miki Thompson to the position of circuit judge in Mingo County more than 84 days before the general election.
That has touched off a mild dispute between staff in the governor’s office and secretary of state’s office versus Mingo County Clerk “Big Jim” Hatfield. Hatfield maintains that since Tomblin appointed Thompson circuit judge more than 84 days before the general election, the unexpired term will appear on the Nov. 4 ballot. Mingo Democrats have nominated Jonathan “Duke” Jewell as their candidate for that election. Some on Tomblin’s staff insist he has the sole right to appoint a successor and there should be no election. Some of Secretary of State Natalie Tennant’s staff have agreed with the governor’s staff on the issue.
But Hatfield plans to put Jewell on the ballot and has already sent the proposed ballot to the printer in Spencer.
Nevertheless, there is no dispute concerning how Kelly’s post will be filled. Since it became vacant less than 84 days before the election, all agree that Tomblin will appoint the replacement. Under that process, the Advisory Commission accepts applications, interviews potential candidates and forwards from two to five names to the governor.
In the Kanawha case, the commission has sent three names to Tomblin. Erica Lord, an assistant Kanawha County prosecutor; Darlene Ratliff Washington; and Joe Zak were recommended. Not making the cut, but a candidate for the appointment was Lera VanMeter, a former Williamson resident. VanMeter’s family formerly owned the Sycamore Inn in Mingo County but she practices law in Charleston.
Some observers have questioned the wisdom of appointing Lord, linking her to the current difficulties in the Kanawha Prosecutor’s office. In practical terms, Kanawha has had at least two functioning prosecutors for months after elected county Prosecutor Mark Plants was disqualified from handling domestic cases. Plants is currently involved in a court case where he is accused of violating a restraining order and overly disciplining his child. Plants has denied those charges and is demanding a court trial.
But the disqualification of Plants’ office has raised concerns among lawyers and citizens alike regarding Lord’s candidacy. Recently, Lord posted what some call “provocative” photos on social media and many said her involvement in Plants’ controversy would make for easy disqualification of her in judging family court matters.
Meanwhile, in Mingo, Jewell is a name that is expected to be provided to Tomblin for possible appointment. Many believe that if the governor names Jewell, the issue of an election will be a moot point since Jewell would be the only name on the Nov. 4 ballot.
Of the three Kanawha candidates, Lord and Ratliff Washington are believed to be Democrats while Zac is reportedly a Republican. Kelly was elected to the position as a Democrat, although some argue that judicial positions are “nonpartisan.” In fact, that was one of the reasons for some arguing that the Mingo executive committee should not name a candidate. Those advocating that position called such appointments “political.”
Technically, Tomblin has 30 days after he receives recommendations from the commission to make the final appointment. Practically, however, the governor has often taken much longer, as he did in the case of Thompson’s appointment as circuit judge.
Nobody was available in the governor’s press office late Tuesday to provide an estimated timetable for the Family Court appointments.