CHARLESTON, W.Va. — For the first time, judges were elected in West Virginia in May. Some have already been appointed and are on the bench.
“They are observing, going to the courtrooms, going to the magistrates offices and getting to know the job intimately and it’s, I think, made for much better jurist all around,” said Steve Canterbury, administrator for the state Supreme Court.
The May Primary was the first election under the change in state law where candidates for state Supreme Court, circuit judge, family court judge and magistrate ran without party affiliation. Judges used to run as Democrats, Republicans, independents or with other political parties.
The legislation to make the election of judges nonpartisan was passed during the 2015 Regular Legislative Session. Senator Charles Trump (R-Morgan, 15), chair of the state Senate Judiciary Committee, said the change works. He said it makes sense to have a nonpartisan judicial race.
“It’s different from legislative office where different political parties develop platforms that generally reflect what they want the law to be,” Trump said. “The question for a judge should never be ‘what do I want the law to be?'”
Canterbury echoed that and said listing party affiliations for judges could give the public a different impression of the candidates.
“Judges don’t act like politicians when they’re on the bench. They do not play it by party or play it conservative or liberal. They understand the rule of law and they follow it,” he said.
Some judicial positions have become vacant this year due to resignations and retirements. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has already appointed several judges to those positions since they were elected in May.
“It serves the court system much better to go ahead, since that person has already been picked to serve as a circuit judge or a family judge,” Tomblin told MetroNews. “Put them in there, let them start and get right to work, as opposed to going through two transitions.”
Tomblin said he has appointed nearly 30 judges during his tenure.
Judges who were elected in May now have a lot more time to train before taking the bench Jan. 1, including Supreme Court Justice-Elect Beth Walker.
“That time frame certainly offers a great opportunity, not only to prepare, but to wind down my law practice as many of the other new judges around the state have been doing since May,” Walker said.
Trump agreed and said, “The window of time between an election in November and January is pretty small. It’s not a lot of time for people to get training.”
But Monongalia County Circuit Judge Susan Tucker said she doesn’t think a longer training period is necessary for judges.
“Anybody who is elected to be a judge has been a lawyer and so we already know the law. It’s just getting used to being on the other side of the bench,” Tucker said.
Tucker, who was re-elected in May, is serving her eighth year as a judge. She said she does like that judges only have to campaign for one election now.
“When I was elected the first time, I had to go through the Primary and the General and basically campaign for a full year. You simply cannot be a good judge and tend to your campaign,” she said.
Being a judge who promises to “follow the rule of law,” Walker said she’s looking forward to serving her 12-year term that will run through 2028. Since she was elected in May, Walker has been spending time with her family and preparing to start the job.
“We had a pretty intense 11-month campaign and I didn’t get to see them much,” she said of her family. “But I spent the summer and fall hiring the law clerks and other staffs that I’ll need as a justice.”
She said she’s also spent much of her time speaking with judges and lawyers around the state about their concerns.
During Walker’s campaign, she said she talked about many issues facing West Virginia including the budget crisis and the drug epidemic.
“I’m hopeful that 12 years from now we can look back and say yes, there was the significant drug crisis, but through the leadership of maybe me and maybe many, many others that we were able to turn the tide and move West Virginia forward,” Walker said.
Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 8.
Live coverage of the results of Decision 2016 begins at 7 p.m. Tuesday on the MetroNews Radio Network and online at wvmetronews.com.