W. Va. Panel Urges Judicial Reforms

Saying that public confidence in the court system has eroded, a judicial reform panel named by West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin has recommended a pilot public financing program for one state Supreme Court seat and “an experiment with merit selection” in initially appointing, rather than electing, judges to a new intermediate court of appeals that the panel wants to see created.

The West Virginia Independent Commission on Judicial Reform (see report here) also recommended that lawmakers establish advisory committees to screen and submit candidates to the governor for filling interim vacancies, and that the secretary of state publish voter guides on judicial candidates.

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was honorary chairwoman of the commission. She has advocated abolishing judicial elections, and the West Virginia panel did not recommend that major reform, according to an article in the Charleston Daily Mail.

The commission recommended lesser steps to rein in judicial campaign spending and bolster public perceptions in face of what it called “an erosion of the public’s confidence in the State’s justice system as a neutral and unbiased arbiter.”

On escalating campaign spending, and the public financing pilot program for one of two state Supreme Court seats in 2012, the commission wrote:

“As campaign spending has increased, so too has the perception that interested third parties can sway the court system in their favor through monetary participation in the election process. This perception strikes at the very heart of the judiciary’s role in our society….

“Something must be done to address the continued growth in spending on judicial campaigns in West Virginia.  As spending by candidates and third parties increases, so too will the perception that ‘justice may be bought.’”

The pilot project would depend upon court filing fees, the Associated Press reported, and other revenue to bring in as much as $2 million a year. The report alluded to the experience of North Carolina, where it said a similar public financing program has proven successful. To learn more about public financing, check out Justice at Stake’s resource page on the topic.

Regarding the creation of an intermediate court of appeals, and initial selection of its judges by appointment, the commission stated:

“There are several reasons why it makes sense for the Legislature to experiment with merit selection at this point in time.  First, recent years have seen West Virginia’s judicial system subjected to numerous national and local press stories that have exacerbated public concern about the potential bias inherent in partisan election of judges.  These concerns suggest that it would be in the state’s interest to at least conduct a trial merit selection program in order to better understand its potential application in West Virginia.”

West Virginia’s court system got nationwide attention this year. The U.S. Supreme Court issued a historic decision requiring one of its state Supreme Court justices, Brent D. Benjamin, to step aside from a multimillion-dollar appeal involving the company of a campaign supporter who spent $3 million to help Justice Benjamin win election. You can learn more about that case, Caperton v. Massey, in these Gavel Grab posts and from the Justice at Stake resource guide here.

Justice O’Connor has discussed that recusal case as an example of campaign spending damaging public confidence in the courts, according to AP. You can learn more about judicial appointment and retention systems by clicking here for Justice at Stake’s resource page.

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