Fewer candidates seek WVa Supreme Court seats after scandal

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A little over a year removed from an impeachment scandal that included pricey renovations of court offices, the West Virginia Supreme Court’s lineup is about to finish its own complete makeover, barring a last-second filing.

There are far fewer names for the three races in May than there were for two spots up for grabs in a November 2018 special election. What the races lack in numbers, they make up with cash.

Missing from the list of nine candidates is Justice Margaret Workman, whose 12-year term also ends this year, is also the current senior justice. Saturday was the deadline for candidates to have their papers postmarked. Three seats are up for grabs on May 12.

Workman did not file precandidacy papers for re-election. She did not respond to a request for comment last week.

If the 72-year-old Workman retires, it would mark the last piece in a court turnover over the past four years. Three justices joined the five-member court in 2018. Beth Walker, who was elected in 2016, will be the senior justice, after December 31, 2020.  The last time all five justices were replaced occurred over a four-year span in the late 1990s.

Judicial elections in West Virginia became nonpartisan in 2016. In 2018, the court’s impeachment scandal stirred political attacks and some Democrats argued the court’s shakeup was a power grab by Republicans. Regardless of what Workman decides, there are three seats up for election, a majority. So the majority could change.

While 20 candidates filed for two open seats in the 2018 special election, this year’s races prompted just nine candidates for three races.

One pits incumbent Justice Tim Armstead against ex-justice Richard Neely.

Armstead, a former Republican House speaker, is completing the 12-year term of convicted former Justice Menis Ketchum, who retired before the House held impeachment hearings. Ketchum was sentenced in federal court to probation on a felony fraud count related to his personal use of a state vehicle and gas fuel card.

The 78-year-old Neely, who once joked that he was “America’s laziest and dumbest judge,” was elected to the court as a Democrat at age 31 in 1972. He served until stepping down in 1995 to start a law practice in Charleston.

Neely said in October he’s running because the court system is a mess. His latest campaign finance report showed he has more than $550,000 cash on hand, compared with about $120,000 for Armstead.

Justice John Hutchison is being challenged in another race by Jackson County Circuit Judge Lora Dyer and Charleston attorney William Schwartz. Hutchison’s campaign has $141,000 on hand, far more than his opponents combined.

Hutchison, a long-time circuit judge elected as a Democrat, was appointed in 2018 by Republican Gov. Jim Justice to the Supreme Court seat vacated by Allen Loughry. May’s special election if for the remainder of Loughry’s term through 2024.

In the third race, four candidates are running for Workman’s seat. Kanawha County Circuit Judge Joanna Tabit filed precandidacy papers last May and her campaign has raised nearly $270,000.

Tabit is being challenged by Kanawha County Family Court Judge Jim Douglas, Putnam County Assistant Prosecutor Kris Raynes and Beckley attorney Bill Wooton, a former Democratic lawmaker.

Workman was the first woman elected to statewide office when she won seat on the court in 1988. She resigned in 1999 to return to private law practice and was elected to the court again in 2008.

Workman, Walker, Loughry and Justice Robin Davis were impeached by the House of Delegates in 2018 over questions involving lavish office renovations that evolved into accusations of corruption, incompetence and neglect of duty.

Last year the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review a decision by five acting justices of West Virginia’s highest court that prosecuting Workman, then the chief justice, in the state Senate would violate the state constitution’s separation of powers clause.

That ruling in Workman’s case was later applied to also halt impeachment proceedings against Davis and Loughry. Davis retired after the House approved impeachment charges against her. Loughry resigned after being convicted in federal court of felony fraud charges. He was sentenced last February to two years in federal prison for using his job for his own benefit and lying to investigators.

Former GOP Congressman Evan Jenkins was elected in 2018 to the seat held by Davis, whose term runs through 2024.

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