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The Charleston Gazette - Two Supreme Court Hopefuls Support Automatic Review of Punitive Damages

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The Charleston Gazette - Two Supreme Court Hopefuls Support Automatic Review of Punitive Damages

Andrew Clevenger

Two of the three candidates for state Supreme Court justice think the court should automatically review cases in which punitive damages are awarded, while the third deferred to the Legislature on the issue.

In a meeting Tuesday with Gazette editors, Democrats Menis Ketchum and Margaret Workman said they support automatic review of such cases by the state's high court.

But Republican Beth Walker said it was up to the Legislature to put a review mechanism in place if lawmakers think it is appropriate.

"I'm not going to place my judgment ahead of the Legislature," she said. "A justice's job is to judge."

The issue was thrust into the spotlight last month when Gov. Joe Manchin filed a "friend of the court" brief, urging the state Supreme Court to hear an appeal of a $196 million punitive-damage award against DuPont Co.

"Due process requires [automatic review] because it's such an unpredictable law," Ketchum said.

"Joe Manchin was right" to encourage further review of the case, Ketchum said. "He didn't say how to rule in the case."

Workman, who was the first woman ever elected to a statewide office when she was elected to the Supreme Court in 1988, said the court should also give murder cases extra attention.

Two seats on the state Supreme Court will be filled in November's election. The winning candidates will serve 12-year terms on the court.

Workman said she wanted to return to the bench to "calm the turmoil" currently plaguing the court.

"Over the last few years, the Supreme Court has had so many integrity issues," she said, although she declined to criticize any justices by name.

The candidates were also asked about an editorial in Sunday's New York Times that called for the U.S. Supreme Court to hear an appeal of whether Justice Brent Benjamin should recuse himself from a case involving Massey Energy Co. The company's president and CEO, Don Blankenship, spent at least $3 million in an effort to unseat Benjamin's opponent in 2004.

Ketchum, a trial lawyer from Cabell County, said Benjamin should have recused himself.

"There is an appearance of impropriety," he said, adding that he thinks the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling will produce a set of guidelines that clarify judicial recusal.

Workman said she supported a panel of three circuit court judges chosen randomly who would review cases in which a party has asked a justice to step down.

Walker, a Charleston lawyer whose practice focuses on employment law, said she was not in a position to say whether Benjamin should have recused himself.

The fact that justices must decide themselves whether they can fairly hear a case emphasizes the importance of electing justices with good judgment, she said.

Walker said she is concerned with the perception that the state's legal climate has an unfavorable effect on business, citing several recent large jury verdicts.

"The business climate does not have anything to do with making rulings on the basis of law," she said. "I'm concerned about the perception of people who are deciding whether or not to bring jobs here, and to keep jobs here."

Workman said that other than in certain administrative responsibilities, such as encouraging efficiency throughout the state's court system, justices should not advocate on behalf of any particular segment of society.

"I don't think they are there to be favorable to labor or to be favorable to business," she said. "You're not there to be a cheerleader."

Ketchum said that the court could improve the business climate by working harder and hearing more cases.

"Our Supreme Court is not working," he said. "They will be on vacation [for] three months and 20 days this year," not including holidays.

"There's no justice there," he said. "I'm not as concerned about the big company's cases, I'm concerned about the average citizen," to whom a divorce case is as important as a big jury verdict.

Workman noted that when she served as a justice, the court heard a record number of cases.

Both Workman and Ketchum are graduates from West Virginia University's College of Law. Walker earned her law degree from The Ohio State University.

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