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Op-Ed: The 2016 Judicial Elections Are a Big Deal – and the Process is New

Op-Ed From Roman Stauffer, Executive Director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse.

Voters across West Virginia should be aware of an important election change before they participate in early voting or head to their polling place on Primary Election Day on May 10th.

For the first time, judicial elections in West Virginia are non-partisan. Candidates for judicial office, including the Supreme Court of Appeals, circuit courts, family courts, and magistrates will be listed on the ballot with no political party affiliations.

The change to the non-partisan election of judicial officers also means one judicial Election Day rather than the usual two. The typical Primary Election Day, which falls on Tuesday, May 10th this year, will be the one opportunity to vote for our judges. Other state and federal officials will still be selected through a Primary Election in May and a General Election in November.

For some voters, the ballot may be longer than expected with the option of selecting delegates to their political party’s national convention. If that is an option on your ballot, be sure to review the entire ballot thoroughly for the judicial candidates, which will be listed near the bottom or end of voters’ ballots, adjacent to candidates for other nonpartisan races, such as the local board of education. While the best approach is voting on each race, if by some chance you are only going to vote in some races, be sure to vote on the nonpartisan judicial races near the bottom of the ballot!

Additionally, circuit court districts that traditionally had more than one judge will be separated into divisions, each having a single circuit judge seat.  Previously, in large circuit court districts with more than one judgeship, the top vote-getters – according to the number of judicial seats being decided in the circuit – were elected.

This year Mountain State voters statewide will elect one justice to the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia, 74 circuit judges across 31 circuit districts, 47 family court judges across 27 districts, and 158 magistrates in 55 counties across West Virginia. That sounds like a lot of voting, but individual voters will only see the few judicial candidates in their local area.

We encourage voters to examine the positions of the judicial candidates on their ballot and decide which candidate will support a fair and impartial legal system to the benefit of all West Virginians. 

The May 10th election for Justice of the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia is particularly important for two reasons. First, the winner will sit on the bench for a 12-year term. Second, since our state lacks an appellate level court, the justices on the Supreme Court of Appeals are the final arbiters of decisions from lower courts.

Our state’s circuit judges are critical because they enforce court procedures and through their decisions develop a thorough body of law. In many instances, our magistrates and family court judges are on the front lines of administering laws and addressing family disputes.

Judges play many very important roles in our legal system. All voters should take their responsibility in selecting our state’s judges – from those on the Supreme Court of Appeals to local family court judges – with the same seriousness as all matters related to our laws and legal system.