West Virginia Supreme Court Division 2 Candidates Want Focus on Family Courts
WHEELING — As the opioid addiction crisis continues in West Virginia, family courts in the state are dealing with the fallout.
Candidates for the Division 2 seat on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals discussed Sunday the need for an increased focus on children and family courts during a candidate forum at West Virginia Northern Community College.
Nine of the 10 candidates for the six-year unexpired term on the court were present for the event. Attending were Jim Douglas of Kanawha County; Robert J. Frank of Greenbrier County; Evan Jenkins of Cabell County; Jeffrey Kessler of Marshall County; Brendan Long of Putnam County; Jim O’Brien and Marty “Redshoes” Sheehan, both of Ohio County; William Schwartz of Kanawha County; and William Stewart Thompson of Boone County. Dennise Renee Smith of Kanawha County did not participate.
A full term on the Supreme Court is for 12 years.
Candidates were given five minutes each to introduce themselves, and at the end they were asked whether West Virginia’s present court system is working, and what the greatest obstacles to the legal system are.
∫ Douglas, a family court judge, pointed out there is no justice presently on the court with significant family court experience. Half of the civil cases filed in West Virginia are family law-oriented, and the state has one of the nation’s highest divorce rates, he said.
“I know everybody talks about the opioid crisis,” Douglas said. “The circuit judges deal with the addicts, and those suffering from addiction. Family court judges like me deal with the aftermath. The addict may be in counseling, may be in recovery. But who takes care of the children when they’re there? What’s more important than our children, our family?”
∫ Long is an attorney with an undergraduate degree in accounting and finance.
“I am a family court practitioner,” he said. “I handle adoption, divorce and custody issues. That is one of the biggest issues for the Supreme Court, and they dropped the ball on that program.
“They are silencing the voice of the children of West Virginia. They aren’t getting a say in representation. They aren’t getting a say in who they want to live with. I think that’s very important.”
This is prevalent in abuse and neglect cases, where children often must be placed with foster families, Long said.
∫ Frank is a complex litigation attorney with 28 years of experience.
“In West Virginia, the greatest obstacle facing our judicial system is a lack of access,” he said. “Access requires resources. It requires resources at the trial court level, for drug court programs, and resources for judicial officers to hear cases. When judicial resources are diverted to such things as desks and floors, that is a denial of access.”
He said it isn’t unusual in Greenbrier County for someone to wait two months or more for a child custody hearing.
∫ Wheeling resident O’Brien first started practicing law in 1981. He said education from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and then Wheeling Jesuit University taught him morals.
“I think the greatest obstacle to justice in this state at present is judicial officers putting their own ego and their own needs above the needs of the people they are elected to serve,” he said. “A judge must be a servant to the public, not a master.”
O’Brien said he remembers desperately seeking to get a case to trial before the plaintiff died, only to have to wait two years for a judge to take up the case.
“Judges need to realize they are elected to serve. When they realize that, we don’t have all the wasteful spending and nonsense we have gone through in the past year.”
∫ Sheehan, also of Wheeling, claimed he is the only candidate for the bench that has undergone a federal background check every year since 1984.
“It may not be necessary, but we can’t take the integrity of people for granted,” he said.
A former assistant federal prosecutor, Sheehan has gone on to be named top 10 criminal defense attorneys in the nation by the National Academy of Criminal Defense Attorneys in 2015.
He said the court system often fails to move quickly because tools such as mediation are overused.
∫ Thompson has been a circuit court judge since 2007, and has run for re-election twice without opposition. He was the presiding judge for the case involving the Upper Big Branch mining disaster. He has been recognized for his role with drug courts.
“Putting on a robe is different. It gives you a lot of power over people’s lives,” he said. “And some people can’t handle it. … I know how to handle the powers of the robe. … I already think like a judge.”
He said the lower courts are effective, but haven’t received enough guidance from the Supreme Court.
∫ Schwartz has been an attorney for more than 30 years, and the National Trial Lawyers Associations ranked him as one of the top 100 attorneys in West Virginia.
He has practiced law in West Virginia since 1988, focusing on toxic and chemical exposure.
“I am a real attorney … ,” Schwartz said. “I know where the courthouse is, I know what to do when I get there and I know what to do when I get to the Supreme Court.”
He blamed the Supreme Court for failing to control its administrator, resulting in lavish and expensive upgrades to court offices.
“If I’m on the court, the court administrator will get very tired of me,” Schwartz said.
∫ Glen Dale resident Kessler spent 17 years as a prosecuting attorney before being elected to the West Virginia Senate, going on to be Judiciary Committee chairman, then Senate president.
“I’ve made the law, I’ve practiced the law, I’ve studied the law and I’ve judged the law,” Kessler said. “There’s no area of the law, truthfully, that I don’t have some experience in.”
He said he believes the court system is working effectively.
“I know, because I’ve been in on it,” Kessler said.
∫ Jenkins is currently a member of the U.S. House representing West Virginia’s 3rd House District.
The Supreme Court is guilty of making bad decisions, but not in a particular case, he said.
“It was a bad decision to spend $7,000 on a desk chair,” he said. “It was a bad decision to spend $26,000 on two rugs. It was a bad decision to spend $114,000 framing pictures for your office. Why have we lost so must trust in our court? It was the decisions they made.”
Jenkins is presently serving as interim justice on the court.