Healing can begin after Elkins judge suspension

An editorial from The Inter-Mountain 

ELKINS, W.Va. — After more than a year of uncertainty in the Randolph County judiciary, the long nightmare seems to have come to a conclusion.

Last week, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals suspended 20th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Jaymie Godwin Wilfong for the remainder of her term, which expires in December 2016.

While the High Court agreed that Wilfong’s actions in connection to an extramarital affair with a county employee merited her removal from the bench, the state’s top legal body showed mercy when imposing monetary fines.

In its recommendation to the Court, the Judicial Hearing Board suggested a fine of $20,000, plus the cost of investigating and prosecuting the charges.

This, as descenting Supreme Court Justice Alan Loughry points out, was well below the potential $55,000 in fines that could have been levied against the judge.

Ultimately, the High Court diverted from the Board’s advice, ruling to only fine Wilfong for the investigatory and prosecutorial charges. According to court documents, this amounts to a little more than $8,000. In addition, she will not only be without her $126,000 judge’s salary, but also without employment as long as she retains her judge’s status.

The decision to remove Wilfong from office was the right call, but the Supreme Court has done a financial disservice to the residents of Randolph County in its move to not levy hefty fines.

What Wilfong did to the people of Randolph County is clearly and indisputably wrong. Even though affairs of the heart are personal and private matters, the fact that the judge carried on the relationship during court hours and inside her chambers is simply inexcusable. That, of course, doesn’t even weigh in with the fact that courthouse and county judicial personnel were dragged into the middle of the situation to further the relationship.

With the mounds of evidence and the judge’s own admissions, one would think the Supreme Court would want to send a clear message that behavior such as this will not be tolerated in an institution that prides itself on upholding law and order.

Aside from setting a clear example with maximum fines, the Court was extremely shortsighted in this instance as the residents of Randolph County and the entire state will continue to pay for this situation for years to come.

Three senior status judges – John Henning, Thomas Steptoe and Thomas Keadle – have been called back to service to keep the county’s legal system running. This will cost more than $430 a day, plus expenses, until the 2015 election cycle.

That’s far too great a financial burden to simply let Wilfong off with a fine of what amounts to court costs.

Furthermore, Wilfong technically remains a circuit court judge, albeit a suspended one without pay. And, there’s absolutely nothing stopping her from running for the same office come 2015.

While she will have served out her punishment by then, it truly would be a shame if she would seek another term. Enough damage – both financial and moral – has already been done to the county’s judiciary.

Unfortunately, this area has a long history of impropriety in its legal system. Another scandal would absolutely decimate any shred of faith the people of this county have been able to hold onto.

Even though Lady Justice is blindfolded, that doesn’t mean our elected judges and prosecutors have free reign to sneak one by the constituents. These officials should be held to a higher standard, and it’s well past time for Randolph County to raise the bar.

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