By Ron Gregory
WILLIAMSON — Secretary of State Natalie Tennant has issued an order prohibiting voters from choosing the next Mingo County Family Court Judge. But Mingo County Clerk “Big Jim” Hatfield said late Friday he is not taking it lying down while “fighting for the people of Mingo.”
In a letter to Hatfield, received Friday morning, Tennant cited her authority as chief elections officer of the state in issuing the order. The secretary said in her letter that she had “become aware that you (Hatfield) have submitted to the printer a ballot which contains an election which is not permitted by law.”
The letter goes on to order Hatfield to remove “any and all reference to an election to fill an unexpired term of a judge of the Eighth Family Court circuit.”
At issue is the vacancy created when Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin promoted former Family Court Judge Miki Thompson to the circuit judge position left vacant by the forced resignation of former Judge Michael Thornsbury. Because Thompson was appointed more than 84 days before the general election, Hatfield and others have agreed that the unexpired Family Court position should be filled by the voters on Nov. 4.
Originally, members of Tomblin’s staff, together with Tennant staffers, argued that the Family Court appointment also belongs to the governor. While Tennant’s order issued Friday says an election “is not permitted,” Hatfield and others have said that such an election is not prohibited.
Although Tennant says in her letter that she and “all elected officials” believe “the voters should have a say,” she maintains that the law does not allow an election.
Earlier, when asked directly if he would stand in the way of an election and declare that he was making the appointment, Tomblin said, “I would never go against having a vote of the people.”
Hatfield responded Friday afternoon in a letter to Tennant. He noted that the Secretaryof State had issued her order on the eve of a three-day weekend. Hatfield further maintained that Tennant had ample opportunity to bring up the issue weeks ago. He said his office forwarded her a letter from the Mingo Democrat Executive Committee naming Jonathan “Duke” Jewell as its candidate for the spot. Because of the timing, Hatfield asked Tennant to extend the deadline for a formal response from him until Sept. 9. It originally was set for Tuesday.
In her order, Tennant cites West Virginia Code 3-1A-6(a) as giving her the authority to direct Hatfield to remove Jewell’s name. That provision does not address Family Court judge elections specifically but does say that the secretary of state can issue orders regarding ballots.
Tennant also says in her order that she issued it after consulting with the state elections commission, of which she is a member. In response to a reporter’s question, Tennant spokesman Jake Glance said the SEC was convened for an “emergency meeting,” which requires little public notice. He said a video of the meeting would be placed on the Internet on Friday afternoon.
Hatfield took issue with that as well. “If you did indeed meet or consult with the State Election Commission,” he told Tennant, “then I should have had notice and a chance to appear and respond to that meeting or consultation. I want to note my objection to this as well.”
The clerk says West Virginia Code 3-5-19 gives the executive committees power to appoint candidates outside 84 days of an election. In comments, Hatfield added, “She acts like I’m calling a special election. We are already having an election Nov. 4. The good people of Mingo County should make up their own minds.”
Whoever is eventually selected for the post would serve until the end of Thompson’s term in 2016.
“If it stands that only the governor can make the appointment, that means Mingo County will have a Family Court judge for more than two years that they did not elect,” Hatfield said. “I just feel that is as wrong as it can be.”
Some Hatfield supporters have maintained that, while Tomblin could appoint someone to the post, that person would only serve until voters elect someone in November.
In conclusion to his letter, Hatfield expressed disappointment with the Democrat Secretary of State.
“I am highly disappointed in your actions, as they have prohibited the Democratic Party from having a candidate on the ballot this fall for county commissioner … and Family Court judge.”
Tennant and the state SEC earlier determined that Hatfield, who won the Democrat primary for Mingo County Commission, had a right to withdraw from the race. They did not endorse his request that the health problems he cited be used to determine “extenuating personal circumstances.” The effect of that was to prevent a Democrat commission candidate from appearing on the fall ballot.