High Court Ruling Focuses on Election of Judges

By: Roger Sheppard
By: Roger Sheppard

U.S. Supreme Court Rules on Case Involving Benjamin, Blankenship

The U.S. Suprme Court this week (June 8, 2009) voted 5-4 to over-turn a verdict rendered by the West Virginia Supreme Court.

As if that were not enough, it also drew into question the whole matter of how judges are selected, from circuit judges all the way up to the State Supreme Court level.

The high court ruled that current WV Chief Justice Brent Benjamin should have recused himself (stepped-down) from hearing a case involving Massey Energy Company, whose chief executive, Don Blankenship, donated more than $3 million to Benjamin's run for the state Supreme Court not long before the case was heard.

While the U.S. Supreme Court did not come out and say that Benjamin's vote in favor of Massey in the case was directly linked to Blankenship's support, it said the matter created an appearance that such bias could have occurred.

Judicial experts are now saying this could trigger a call for a re-examination of how judges are selected across all 50 states. Some believe the current method of electing judges in many jurisdictions is fine the way it is. Others say it would be better if more judges were selected on merit, rather than elected.

In West Virginia, magistrates, circuit judges and members of the state's highest court are all elected by the voters and are elected by party affiliation.

The question is: what is the best way to get the best judges? Of course, that begs the question: What do you mean by "best" judge? One who will try to render decisions based on the state or federal constitutions and the precedence of previous rulings? Or one who will use the law to try to change society in manner that he or she sees fit?

There are basically two ways to select judges: by election or by appointment. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. If judges are elected, they might pander to public sentiments or fall under the spell of a large campaign contributor. If they are selected by a panel, politics can still play a part, even if there is no clear-cut party affiliation.

Since we are all imperfect, to assume that a judge is perfect or that any method by which judges are selected will be perfect, is folly. Nonetheless, we have to keep trying.

One way to begin to improve the method by which judges are elected in West Virginia, is to remove their party affiliation.

We elect school board members without party affiliation and some communities elect city councils that are non-partisan as well.

That is not to say that merely wiping out party affiliations in elections, removes politics from the equation.

But it would help force people to look at the candidates for who they are and what they have done, rather than focusing on party affiliation alone.

I'm all for a two-party system (or three) in national elections, so that a majority (or near majority) of people will be invested in the success of the President. Countries that have 10 or 20 candidates vying for the top national office, end up with a winner that has the support of only a small percentage of the voters.

But in the case of judges here in the U.S. as a whole, and in West Virginia specifically, party affiliation should be removed from the process of electing who will serve, as a first step in making sure that all parties can be assured they will get a fair hearing when they go to court.





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