West Virginia Looks to Restore Confidence In State Supreme Court

January 21, 2010

Gov. Joe Manchin and the state Supreme Court hope to shore up public confidence in a West Virginia judicial system that has been scrutinized by the nation’s highest court and branded a “hellhole” by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Manchin wants to allow for public financing for the two state Supreme Court elections in 2012, with an eye toward addressing fears that West Virginia justices can be bought by wealthy campaign donors.

The court, meanwhile, plans to release a proposed set of rules by early February aimed to address concerns that the state lacks an effective process for reviewing decisions made by circuit courts.

Both strategies come after years of bad press for the state’s courts, which have been criticized by public interest groups and business lobbies.

In the most high profile rebuke, the U.S. Supreme Court last year faulted state Chief Justice Brent Benjamin for failing to remove himself from a multimillion-dollar appeal involving the company of his top 2004 campaign supporter. The court ruled that elected judges must step aside if campaign donations are likely to create the perception of bias.

In his State of the State address last week, Manchin said public financing for Supreme Court justices will eliminate that perception.

“The goal is to relieve judges from the burden of political fundraising and to reduce the potential for appearance of bias as a result of campaign donations,” he said.

A draft copy of Manchin’s bill says funding will come from new fees from court proceedings and lawyers, the unclaimed property fund administered by the state treasurer, a voluntary donation on income tax forms and other sources.

The bill already has powerful supporters in the Legislature, including Senate Finance Chairman Jeff Kessler, who introduced an unsuccessful public financing bill last year.

“If you ask the judges what the most distasteful part of the campaign is, it’s going out and asking for money from people who might come before you in court,” the Marshall County Democrat said.

Kessler said he hopes public financing will ultimately expand to include West Virginia’s 70 circuit court judges.

Public financing was one of the recommendations made last year by a Manchin-appointed panel that studied West Virginia’s courts. Another recommendation was to create a midlevel appeals court, which would address concerns that some important cases are being resolved without further review, since West Virginia lacks an automatic right to have appeals heard.

Manchin did not call for such a court, but said Wednesday the Supreme Court is almost ready to unveil a set of proposals aimed at addressing those concerns.

The court won’t discuss in detail the rules it’s planning, said clerk of the court Rory Perry, but they will be submitted for public comment once they’re finished.

“This is going to be a complex change to the rules of appellate procedure, which really haven’t changed much in over 30 years,” Perry said.

Business groups have criticized the appeals process, with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce among those labeling West Virginia a “judicial hellhole” on multiple occasions.

State Chamber of Commerce President Steve Roberts said Thursday he’s waiting to see the proposed rules before commenting, but that he welcomes the attention being given to the subject.

“What has caused West Virginia to stand out is that if a mistake is made in West Virginia, there hasn’t been an automatic opportunity to have that reviewed,” he said.

Kessler also wants to see the rules before making up his mind, but he has reservations if the process looks like it’s one-sided.

“I want to make sure it’s not only about business-oriented cases,” he said. “The poor fellow who’s been thrown in jail for life, for example, and has valid grounds for an appeal deserves to have his case heard, too.”

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