West Virginia State lawmakers consider key changes to court system Propose using public funds for campaigns

By Lawrence Messina

Associated Press Writer

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) West Virginia's top lawmakers see value in changing the state's court system as recently recommended by the governor's Independent Commission on Judicial Reform. Whether they pursue any of its key suggestions during the upcoming session remains to be seen.

A publicly financed Supreme Court election, an intermediate appeals bench, and special committees advising on filling judicial vacancies were among the Nov. 16 findings. The nine-member panel, which also had retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor as its honorary chair, was formed in mid-June.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff Kessler has championed the swapping of public funds for regular campaign cash. He supports the report's goal of trying that route with one of the two Supreme Court seats on the 2012 ballot.

West Virginia's judicial candidates now run under partisan banners, and attract contributions through campaign committees. State Supreme Court races have become multimillion-dollar affairs this decade, and O'Connor is among the critics of such spending on judicial elections.

"As campaign expenditures rise, so too does the threat of bias, and certainly the public perception of bias, as candidates face mounting pressure to accept donations from lawyers and parties that may appear before them once they take a seat on the bench," the report said.

The appearance of bias helped result in the summer's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that removed state Chief Justice Brent Benjamin from an appeal involving a campaign supporter's company. With the report recommending a limited pilot project, Kessler said he's glad it didn't propose changes so great as to be politically unfeasible.

"They didn't try to bite off too much, and make sweeping recommendations that weren't going to go anywhere," said Kessler, D-Marshall.

Kessler also applauded the report's endorsement of "efforts to control independent expenditures," which he has also led. The Legislature has passed several attempts to regulate non-candidate, election-time spending, though none has yet survived federal court challenges.

House Speaker Richard Thompson has advocated for a special court to resolve disputes among businesses. The report says the state court system should study such a step. While finding no "immediate emergency" regarding such cases, the commission said they "continue to become larger, more complex, and more technical."

Thompson wants the state to follow through on the concept, perhaps as a pilot program.

"I continue to believe that this is one of the best things we can do to attract new business," said Thompson, D-Wayne. "I'd like to see it implemented. It's that important."

Perhaps the report's biggest recommendation would create a midlevel appeals court that the state's justices could rely on to handle as-yet-unspecified types of cases. Thompson noted that item's price tag: $8.6 million to start the six- to nine-judge court, and $7.8 million annually. The economy makes finding the money a difficult prospect, he said.

Supporters of that recommendation include Delegate John Ellem, R-Wood and minority chair of the House Judiciary Committee.

Ellem is among the state's lawyers that judges appoint to represent poor people charged with crimes. While those seeking a new appeals court have cited high-profile civil cases denied a full-blown review by the state Supreme Court, Ellem said criminal defense lawyers share similar concerns.

The Supreme Court has total discretion over accepting appeals. It is the only "court of last resort" with such complete discretion among the 10 states lacking an intermediate appeals court, according to the nonpartisan National Center for State Courts. Of the rest, all must accept civil appeals except New Hampshire, which is mandated to accept only capital murder death penalty cases.

"In my opinion, there is a real need," Ellem said. "I think the benefits will outweigh any costs."

Associated Press Writer Tom Breen in Charleston contributed to this report. Lawrence Messina covers the statehouse for The Associated Press.