West Virginia Supreme Court Division 1 Hopefuls Make Their Cases in Wheeling

Photo by Scott McCloskey Candidates for the Division 1 seat on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals gather Sunday in Wheeling for a candidate forum jointly sponsored by the county Republican and Democratic parties and the Ohio County Bar Association. Pictured, from left are Jeff C. Woods, Ronald H. Hatfield Jr., Chris Wilkes, Robert Carlton, Harry “Bo” Bruner Jr., Tim Armstead and Joanna Tabit. Also present, but not pictured, was Hiram “Buck” Lewis IV. Candidates D.C. Offut Jr. of Cabell County and Mark Hunt of Kanawha County did not attend.

WHEELING — Candidates for the Division 1 seat on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals believe the state’s court system needs to move quicker and be more affordable and accessible to the public.

Eight of the 10 candidates seeking election to an unexpired two-year term on the court convened Sunday at West Virginia Northern Community College in Wheeling for a candidate forum jointly sponsored by the county Republican and Democratic parties, and the Ohio County Bar Association.

Participating in the event were Tim Armstead, Kanawha County; Harry “Bo” Bruner Jr., Kanawha County; Robert Carlton, Mingo County; Ronald H. Hatfield Jr., Cabell County; Hiram “Buck” Lewis, Clay County; Joanna I. Tabit, Kanawha County; Chris Wilkes, Berkeley County; and Jeff C. Woods, Kanawha County.

D.C. Offut Jr. of Cabell County and Mark Hunt of Kanawha County did not attend.

J. Michael Myer, executive editor of The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register, served as moderator. About 30 people were in the audience.

Each candidate was given five minutes to talk about themselves and address a list of questions provided to them before the event.

In closing, each candidate was asked if they thought the current court system in West Virginia was working, and how it could be improved.

∫ Wilkes is a circuit court judge who has been a trial court judge for 25 years. He said his greatest strength is that both prosecutors and defense attorneys have expressed support for his campaign.

He believes the court system largely is working, but that recent controversy surrounding the state Supreme Court has caused the public to lose trust in it.

“The tragedy is that there are 250 judges who go to work every day as magistrates, family court and circuit court judges who continue to dispense justice and do their job,” said Wilkes.

But there is also room for improvement, according to Wilkes. More free legal services for both criminal and civil indigents are needed to ensure their access to justice, he said.

∫ Tabit has been a circuit court judge in Kanawha County for the past three years, and has 22 years of experience as a trial attorney.

“Overall, I do think our court system is effective … ,” she said. “With respect to access to justice, that’s the biggest obstacle I see. There was an access to justice commission that was doing research on this issue, and it needs to be re-evaluated. Justice needs to be accessible, convenient and affordable for all West Virginians.”

She said once electronic filing of cases is up and running in the state, this will make the courts more accessible to all residents.

∫ Hatfield, a Marine Corps veteran, said he is “not a plaintiff’s lawyer, not a defense lawyer” and not a politician. He said his strength is that he has represented all sides in many types of cases during his 18 years as an attorney.

He also is a proponent of e-filing in West Virginia’s court system.

“Beyond that, I would want to work with the state bar to create incentives to make it easier for lawyers to do more pro bono work, and to stay involved with indigent clients — whether it be defense cases or mental hygiene cases,” Hatfield said.

∫ Bruner said in his law office he has a $5 chair and a $3 desk. He advocates for transparency at the Supreme Court, and he said if he is elected to serve there he will take the doors off his office so everyone can see it.

“I’m going to respectively disagree (that the courts are effective),” Bruner said. “I have had enough circuit court cases to tell you that justice is too slow. Some of my clients have had to settle cases because they can’t wait forever. … There are some very good circuit court judges. But the bottom line is justice is too slow in this state, justice is too costly and justice delayed is denied.”

Because the courts are cost-prohibitive, “poor people are boxed out,” he said.

∫ Woods, an attorney with 25 years of experience, is the son of a cook at the Greenbrier County Jail and a janitor in the courthouse.

“I am most uniquely prepared for the job,” he said. “I’ve been everything in the legal system except the defendant.”

He also doesn’t think the present court system is working effectively, as there is no “consumer satisfaction.”

“We don’t have it,” Woods said. “The public trust is down. How can you be effective if nobody trusts you? Nobody trusts our judiciary. It’s just that plain and simple.”

Justices need to remember they are elected by the public, respect those that came before them and render fair decisions, he said.

∫ Carlton, of Mingo County, has been an attorney for 33 years. He has spent much of his career as a children’s advocate and a family court and divorce attorney.

The Supreme Court does do a lot with its budget, according to Carlton. He said an intermediate appellate court is needed in West Virginia, and this could be accomplished without much cost if circuit court judges were directed to take turns sitting on the bench.

“And an attorney should be able to file for recusal without the risk of sanctions,” Carlton said.

Carlton is licensed as an attorney not just in West Virginia, but also in Kentucky and North Carolina.

∫ Armstead previously served as speaker of the West Virginia House of Delegates. He has 28 years of experience as an attorney, and is now an interim justice on the court.

“We all know our court is in a state of crisis,” Armstead said. “Throughout our history, people always respected judges, teachers and pastors. … A recent poll says West Virginians have little or no faith whatsoever in the Supreme Court. We have to change that.”

A constitutional amendment goes before voters on Nov. 6 that would place oversight of the Supreme Court’s budget with the West Virginia Legislature.

Armstead said he suspects the Legislature is going to look into the court’s budget and make significant changes.

∫ Lewis, of Clay County, was late for the event, explaining he had stopped for pizza from DiCarlo’s on the way there.

He is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and a captain in the National Guard. He has 17 years of experience as an attorney.

Lewis said the court needs justices who aren’t beholden to any supporters, and who can render non-biased opinions.

“I believe freedom plus fairness equals prosperity,” Lewis said. “We need free individuals in a free state. That is how our constitution is set up, and that is how it works best. … I am committed to the nonpartisan makeup of the Supreme Court. I believe it is the most important thing we all can do to usher in a nonpartisan, non-biased West Virginia Supreme Court.”

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