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Meet the candidates: Recusal reform a hot topic for Supreme Court Democrats

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Incumbent West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Robin Jean Davis said she would oppose any effort to reform the rules justices use to determine whether they should step down from certain cases.

The current procedure, Davis said, works just fine. In the past 14 months, justices voluntarily recused themselves from cases 46 times if there was a perception of a conflict on interest, she said

Lawyers filed just four motions to disqualify a justice. Three justices stepped down based on those motions.

"I think we're very, very cautious," Davis said Thursday during a candidate meeting with Gazette editors. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize when you need to be off the case."

In March, Supreme Court challenger Letitia "Tish" Chafin proposed a recusal reform that would force a sitting justice to explain why he or she did not step down from a case. Under the current rules, the justices simply decide for themselves.

Chafin's proposal is based on the furor caused in 2009, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state Justice Brent Benjamin's should have stepped down from a case involving Massey Energy Co.

Former Massey CEO Don Blankenship contributed more than $3 million to a political group focused on ousting Warren McGraw from his seat on the court. McGraw lost the 2004 election to Benjamin.

Chafin said Thursday that law students, lawyers and judges across the country look to the U.S. Supreme Court decision for guidance.

"It's never in a positive light," she said. "However we do the reform, it needs to be done. The stories they've had about West Virginia and Caperton-Massey -- I would like them to end up on the note that West Virginia led the way for recusal reform."

Six Democratic candidates will face off in the May primaries for the two available seats on the state's high court. Along with Chafin and Davis, Supreme Court Clerk Louis Palmer, Greenbrier Circuit Judge Jim Rowe and H. John "Buck" Rogers attended Thursday's meeting. Wood County Circuit Judge J.D. Beane was in court Thursday and could not attend.

Supreme Court lawyer Allen Loughry and Jefferson Circuit Judge John Yoder are unopposed in the Republican primary.

Rowe advocated further expansion of the Supreme Court's relatively new drug court and truancy court initiatives, having himself spearheaded a truancy program in the 11th Circuit that lowered high school dropout rates from 120 a year to less than 20. Attendance rates, he said, have risen from around 90 percent to 97 percent.

"I want to see that duplicated statewide," he said.

Palmer has served as a clerk on the Supreme Court for 16 years. He said he has intimate knowledge of how the court operates and has an understanding of the law consistent with any sitting justice.

"My ultimate basis for running for Supreme Court," Palmer said, "is that it is an extension of me, as far as what judges do."

Rogers, a Wetzel County lawyer and political maverick, said he disagrees with several Supreme Court policies, including the recusal rules.

Reach Zac Taylor at Zachary.Taylor@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189.


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