by Julie Archer, Coordinator for WV Citizens for Clean Elections
This week the House Judiciary Committee passed HB 4785 which would strip West Virginians of their ability to vote on newly appointed judges for several years, leaving no room for public input and without fully considering the huge impact it could have on workers, business owners, and families across West Virginia.
The people of West Virginia deserve to have a say-so on their courts. In proposing this bill, lawmakers are taking power away from West Virginia voters and handing it to the governor instead. HB 4785 could shield partisan or incompetent judges from any kind of public check for several years. There’s no telling the damage that could be done in that time.
When a member of the West Supreme Court retires with more than two years left in their term, the governor selects their replacement, who must then stand in a special election before completing the rest of that same term. The new bill would raise the threshold requirement to three years, allowing an appointed judge to preside over a court for even longer without having to face voters. The legislation would also apply to circuit judges, family court judges, and magistrates.
The timing of the bill is no coincidence. Earlier this month, West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Evan Jenkins announced his retirement from the court, leaving a vacancy for Governor Jim Justice to fill. Under current law, Jenkin’s replacement would run in November’s general elections, allowing the public to remove them if they were found to be partisan or incompetent. But HB 4785 changes that, putting the governor’s pick beyond voter’s control until 2024.
Proponents of the bill, which is expected to receive a full House vote on Tuesday, have defended it on the grounds that it preserves continuity and promotes trust in the court. That couldn’t be more wrong. Continuity for our judges, like any other powerful elected position, must be earned. West Virginians did not ask for their electoral power to be weakened and doing so now by jamming a bill through the legislature at the last minute can only erode public confidence in our state’s highest court.
Our state Supreme Court can have the final say on critical issues like education funding, access to healthcare, worker protections, neighborhood safety, and the quality of our air and water. The stakes for regular West Virginians are far too high to risk this kind of judicial power grab. Members of the House must reject this bill.
Please call your members of the House of Delegates and urge them to vote No on HB 4785.