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Legislature weighs non-partisan judge elections

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Legislators Monday began committee hearings on making the the election of judges, including for the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, non-partisan.

Both the House of Delegates and Senate Judiciary Committees met Monday at the Capitol to review House Bill 2010 and Senate Bill 10, respectively. Both bills would require circuit court judges, family court judges, justices and magistrates to be elected through nonpartisan elections and set up election schedules beginning in 2016.

“There is a lot of interest in making sure the judicial process is fair to all parties involved,” said Del. Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha, who sponsored HB2010. “Removing that political affiliation of the justices helps ensure that. People are not as concerned as what will happen if they come before a judge of another political party.”

Lane said the change also would mean judges don’t run in the primaries, shortening the time they have to campaign and reducing the influence of outside groups, such as lobbyists.

“It allows judges to focus on the broader electorate rather than engaging in a political battle,” he said.

House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said he was “excited” to see the first of the House’s judicial reforms being taken up by the committee.

“It’s something that I’ve felt very strongly about for many years, that our caucus has felt strongly about, that we should not be electing judges on a partisan basis. We are in a minority of states that elect our judges on a partisan basis. I expect that we will change that this session.”

Armstead said he has heard mostly support for the changes from fellow legislators.

“I’ve not heard a great deal of opposition to the bill, even from judges,” he said. “I would anticipate widespread support on that.”

Senate Minority Leader Sen. Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, said he was not opposed to the bill, but felt it didn’t get to the heart of people’s concerns.

“We’re not afraid of looking at different methods of dealing with our judiciary,” he said. “I’d prefer, rather than the non-partisan part, we look more at the role money plays in elections. I think that creates more of a lack of confidence, who is paying for them to run, than what party they affiliate with.”

Legislators have expressed some concerns with the new bill over how election districts would be determined and how voters would get enough information on a candidate, especially a sitting judge who may be unable to openly discuss some current legal issues, to make an informed decision.

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