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Candidates continue to joust over recusal reform

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The two Democratic candidates for the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals continue to joust over a proposal to set clear rules that would force justices to give a reason to stay on cases on which they have a perceived conflict of interest.

Several months ago, in light of a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision that found that Justice Brent Benjamin should have stepped down from a case involving Massey Energy Co., Democratic candidate Letitia "Tish" Chafin called for a plan in which justices would have to submit a written opinion justifying their reasons for staying on a case if the parties complained about a conflict of interest.

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.

Incumbent Democratic Justice Robin Jean Davis has repeatedly balked at the proposed plan. Over the past 18 months, justices have voluntarily recused themselves from 55 cases, she said during a meeting with Gazette editors Monday. Chafin and Republican candidates Allen Loughry and John Yoder were also at the meeting.

"We know how to deal with disqualifications," Davis said. "I say why fix it if it is not broken?"

Chafin pointed out that the court's recusal policy failed in the Massey case, and a rule change would help battle an image that West Virginia is a "judicial hellhole."

"It takes just one case to give West Virginia a black eye," Chafin said. "It may never happen again, but I think a rigorous recusal rule would help restore public trust."

Allen Loughry, one of the two Republican candidates vying for a seat on the court said that the court should be open to ideas on recusal reform, but that Chafin's current plan is unworkable and would allow lawyers to "shop" for justices who would be likely to render a favorable decision.

Earlier this month, citing a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that declared public campaign financing matching funds to be an unconstitutional infringement on the free speech rights of privately funded candidates, the state Supreme Court justices denied Loughry more than $140,000 in public matching campaign funds.

 Loughry, a clerk for the state high court, sought the release of the funds under a state Supreme Court public campaign financing pilot project.

"I chose to take part in that program," Loughry said. "It's been a long several months."

Loughry, while clearly disappointed in the decision, said that he is hoping to move on with his campaign.

"I want to move forward and continue to beat the bushes hard and meet the people," he said.

Yoder, a Berkeley County circuit judge, said that he would support a plan that would eliminate partisan judicial elections in West Virginia. 

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

 


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