Few West Virginians have a direct connection to the state Supreme Court of Appeals. The court moves along in relative obscurity and only comes to people’s attention when a controversial ruling turns an established part of life upside-down.
That’s the way it was until a few years ago when it became apparent the five justices on the court had a pretty cavalier attitude toward spending the people’s money. Without rehashing well-known history, it became apparent change was needed at the state’s highest court.
In a few days, voters will decide the direction the court will take for the next few years. Three of the five seats are up for election. Two are for full 12-year terms. One is for an unexpired term.
The question before voters is whether they are satisfied with the current makeup of the court or do they want a change. Do voters trust the political and judicial philosophies of the court’s current members? Should justices have arrived on the court through political means or through experience judging cases?
Using the last question as a guide, there are three candidates who merit voter approval in next month’s primary election. The election is a nonpartisan final election. The winners go on to service on the court.
In Division 1, the choice is Richard Neely. Neely previously served on the court from 1973 to 1995.
In Division 2, the choice is Joanna Tabit, who has been a circuit court judge in Kanawha County the past five years.
In Division 3, the choice is John Hutchison, a sitting justice appointed by Gov. Jim Justice and who had previously served as a circuit court judge in Raleigh County.
Neely points to how the court was scandal-free in his previous time there. He promises to bring efficiency back to the court’s operation and speed up the appeals process. He also says the magistrate and family courts, where people are most likely to interact with the court system, need priority in funding. It’s hard to argue with that.
Tabit favors an appeals system that would change how justices are removed from cases in which they might have a conflict of interest. Under the current system, the justice himself or herself decides if a conflict exists. There is no mechanism to challenge that decision. Tabit favors allowing the full court to review those decisions.
Hutchison says justices should interpret the law, not write law. He defers on many questions to the judgment of the Legislature.
With the long terms justices serve on the court, voters are about to set the course of the court for many years to come.
The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals works best when West Virginians can more or less forget it’s there. That’s not been the case the past few years with the spending scandals, impeachments, resignations, political appointments and elections that have gone on. The hope here is that this slate of candidates can do their jobs so well that when the court is in the headlines, it’s because of the decisions of its members and not because of their antics.