Gavel Grab

Court Candidates Debate Recusal in West Virginia

At a West Virginia Supreme Court candidates’ forum before a pro-business audience, there was debate over the best way to protect fair and impartial courts through judicial recusal.

Four candidates for two seats on the court appeared at the event on Wednesday before the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s Annual Meeting and Business Summit, according to a West Virginia Record article.

Democrat Tish Chafin, a former State Bar president, has proposed changing the rules that apply to preventing justices from considering cases that could involve a conflict of interest. She proposes that a justice who declines to step aside in such a case could be taken off the case by action of the other four justices and a specially appointed judge (see Gavel Grab).

Currently, a justice can recuse voluntarily from hearing a case or elect to step aside if a party to the case requests it.

Conflict of interest concerns raised by spending to influence West Virginia court elections were highlighted by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 2009 decision, Caperton v. Massey. It was because of the backlash from that case that she has proposed the change, Chafin said.

“We need to step up and change the rules,” she said. “One case can erode confidence in the judiciary. It’s about ‘perceived bias’ and improving public perception of the Court.”

Republican candidate Allen Loughry did not agree. “This idea is blown out of proportion,” he said. “I’m not opposed to tweaking the rules, but I don’t think this is the answer. Chief Justice ([Menis] Ketchum actually is looking at this issue now, and he has said he’ll make a decision after this election because he doesn’t want the issue to become a political football.”

Justice Robin Jean Davis, a Democrat, said about the proposal, “There are much bigger issues this state is facing.” Justices recused 59 times in the past 19 months, she said, and justices recused in 51 of those instances,”voluntarily without the need for one written notice.”

Republican John Yoder agreed only that there is need for discussion of the idea.

Before the candidates’ forum, the Chamber gave its annual Court Watch presentation. Reviewing 32 state Supreme Court rulings, the Chamber described more than two-thirds, or 22, as friendly toward businesses, according to the West Virginia Record article.

“That speaks volumes about where we’ve been and where we’ve come,” Justice Davis said in her remarks to the audience. “We’ve rolled up our sleeves, and we’ve worked.”

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