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Public Financing Clears Hurdle for WV Supreme Court Races

Public financing may be becoming the norm for candidates seeking seats on the West Virginia Supreme Court. (Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia)
Public financing may be becoming the norm for candidates seeking seats on the West Virginia Supreme Court. (Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia)
March 25, 2016

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - A ruling that two state judicial candidates can use public financing for their campaigns may be a sign that public money is the "new normal" for those races.

On Wednesday, the West Virginia Supreme Court cleared the way for Brent Benjamin and Bill Wooten to get $500,000 each to run for a seat Benjamin now holds on that court.

Their rights to the funds had been challenged on grounds including missed paperwork deadlines.

But election-law attorney Tony Majestro says the state gains enough by not having judicial candidates "dialing for dollars" to cut them slack on such technicalities.

He says folks are starting to think public financing just works better.

"It's hard to raise $500,000, it is a lot of work," says Majestro. "And no one's going to claim that someone who gave you a contribution of a $1, $5, or even $100 has somehow 'bought' you."

The public-financing program requires that state Supreme Court candidates first get a number of small donations to demonstrate a base of support.

In her suit to block the funding for her opponents, Beth Walker also argued public financing impedes her free-speech rights. The court ruled against her.

Kathy Stoltz, who follows election laws for the West Virginia League of Women Voters, says public financing's a lot better than having prospective justices asking for money from folks who may end up with cases before the court.

She adds there are signs that public financing can increase public confidence.

"In some places where they've had public financing longer than we have, some of the voters actually take that as a positive," says Stoltz. "That a candidate ran on public financing, rather than going out and having to beg money from who knows where."

The nonpartisan state Supreme Court election is scheduled for early May. If Benjamin or Wooten win, two of the five justices will have won with the help of public financing.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV