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Gazette - "Maynard Does Not Attend Young Democrats Debate"

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Location: Charleston, WV

Gazette - "Maynard Does Not Attend Young Democrats Debate"

Controversial Chief Justice Elliott "Spike" Maynard was a no-show at the state Young Democrats' Supreme Court candidates debate Saturday.

Maynard, the subject of a report on ABC News due to air nationally Monday night focusing on his relationship with a state coal operator, gave sponsors no indication why he did not attend.

His three challengers, however, all spoke about the need for change on the state's highest, and only, appellate court.

"I think the soul of the court is up for grabs," said Bob Bastress, a West Virginia University law professor and author of a book about the state's constitution.

Huntington lawyer Menis Ketchum said the court has become one of "extremes," adding that "extremes are bad."

"I think that our court philosophically is deeply divided between the left and right," he said, calling for a move "back to the middle ground."

With 18 years on the bench behind her - almost 12 as a Supreme Court justice - Charleston lawyer Margaret Workman said no one need wonder about how she would handle the job.

"You don't have to ask what kind of judge I'm going to be," she said. "I have an extensive record ... [of] unblemished integrity."

Maynard consistently ruled on cases involving Massey Energy Co. and its chief executive officer, Donald Blankenship, until December, when it was revealed that he and a female court employee had been vacationing along the French Riviera with Blankenship. He has since recused himself from hearing such cases, contending he had not been asked to do so previously.

His opponents, however, have consistently pointed out that he did not reveal his European vacation with Blankenship and no recusal motion is necessary for judges to step aside in cases where they have a conflict of interest.

All three agreed that justices should disclose relationships with any person or corporation coming before the court.

ABC News is preparing a report on Maynard's relationship with Blankenship set to air this week.

Justice Brent Benjamin also has consistently heard cases from Massey, despite Blankenship's raising as much as $3.5 million to fund Benjamin's 2004 campaign.

Author John Grisham recently published a best-selling novel about a CEO spending enough to get a justice elected in order to win cases in a state's highest court. Grisham has said he based the novel's premise on the 2004 Benjamin election.

"I'm running because I think our court is becoming the laughingstock of the state," Ketchum said.

Litigants need to believe they got a fair hearing, win or lose, before the court, he said.

"The court needs to become judicial again," Ketchum said.

Workman worked with 13 other justices during her previous tenure on the court. While all carried on lively debates, she said, the current court is going too far.

"I want to go back and calm the turmoil," Workman said.

She noted that when she served on the five-justice court, from 1989 to 2000, it heard many more cases than it does now. It still should, she said, because it is the only appellate court.

"We had record numbers of cases," Workman said.

Bastress said the court formerly heard as many as 300 cases in a year, between 40 and 50 percent of those appealed. The current court hears only about 120 cases annually, he said.

"I think they need to get to work," he said.

Two 12-year terms are up for election in the May primary. The two top vote-getters receive the nomination.

Republican Beth Walker, a Charleston lawyer, is the only announced Republican candidate. A public-relations specialist for Walker's campaign attended the debate, which was held at the Charleston Civic Center and open to the public.

The keynote speaker for Saturday night's dinner, Christina Pelosi, daughter of House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, canceled due to illness. State Treasurer John Perdue and Auditor Glen Gainer agreed to split the speaking duties.

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