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W. Va. Senate Committee Backs Publicly Funded Judicial Elections

Posted Mar 8, 2010 7:09 PM CDT
By Sarah Mui

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The West Virginia Senate Judiciary Committee has endorsed a bill that would publicly finance elections of state supreme court justices.

Last week, the state House of Delegates approved pilot program propsed by Gov. Joe Manchin that would finance the two contested seats in the 2012 supreme court race. Candidates would get $200,000 each for primaries and $350,000 for the general election—all being contingent on whether fundraising thresholds are met, BusinessWeek reports.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Jeff Kessler announced his committee's endorsement of the plan at the same time the Justice at Stake Campaign announced the results of a survey (PDF) that found that 52 percent of 600 voters surveyed supported public financing of elections. The American Bar Association is a partner in the Justice at Stake Campaign.

West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals elections have been thrust into the spotlight since Massey Energy appeared before the court after its CEO made a $3 million contribution to Justice Brent D. Benjamin's 2004 campaign. Opposing party Hugh M. Caperton argued Benjamin should recuse himself from their dispute because of the hefty donation. Benjamin refused to step aside and ended up casting a deciding vote in favor of Massey Energy. The case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided for Caperton.

The Alexandria, Va.-based Center for Competitive Politics said in a letter sent to Kessler on Friday that "there is no evidence that taxpayer financing schemes decrease the activity and prevalence of interest groups in politics," and that a provision in the bill releasing "rescue" funds is similar to ones Arizona and Connecticut courts have struck down, BusinessWeek reports.

However, Bert Brandenburg of Justice at Stake told BusinessWeek that the comparable provision in North Carolina's public funding law was recently upheld by the Richmond, Va.-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. New Mexico and Wisconsin also approved public financing in December, according to a Justice at Stake press release.

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