'Dumbest' judge's bid highlights WVa Supreme Court races

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Richard Neely once joked in an advertisement that he was “America's laziest and dumbest judge.” A quarter century later, the former West Virginia Supreme Court justice wants his old job back.

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Neely, 78, is seeking to return to the state's highest court in the aftermath of an impeachment scandal. On Tuesday, he’s challenging incumbent Justice Tim Armstead, a former Republican House speaker, in one of three races on the five-member court.

Neely said he believes the court system is a mess and “isn’t getting anything done.”

Judicial elections in West Virginia became nonpartisan in 2016, but partisanship still lurks just beneath the surface. A 2018 scandal over pricey renovations of court offices led to an overhaul of the court's makeup, but some Democrats say the scandal was mostly a power grab by Republicans.

Now comes Neely, who ran as a Democrat when he served from 1972 until stepping down in 1995 to start a Charleston law practice.

When he announced his candidacy last fall, Neely pointed out that it takes more than two years for the court to process an appeal, which he said is "very, very bad for litigants." The Supreme Court also is bogged down with dozens of administrative employees, he said.

When he was a justice, “it was a much faster, more efficient system” because most cases were dismissed, enabling the high court to focus on those allowed in on appeal, Neely said. If elected, he said there must be a return to “quality control” among cases.

Some, including the Republican State Leadership Committee in an ad campaign, say Neely's potential return would be bad for the court.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s law school which tracks spending in judicial elections, more than $3.6 million was spent in the West Virginia Supreme Court election, including more than $2.7 million by outside groups. The Republican State Leadership Committee spent $1.8 million, including about $340,000 on television ads, most of which attack Neely.

Conversely, the ReSet West Virginia political action committee spent $885,000, including $200,000 on TV ads, mostly attacking Armstead for receiving contributions from special interest groups.

Neely often got attention during his time as a justice both for what he said and did, including when he fired his secretary in 1985 for refusing to continue babysitting his son after three consecutive weeks of watching the child.

Among other things, Neely also has said that society would be better off if women would stay at home parenting their young children.

In a 1991 ad for a clerk that he placed in the Virginia law Weekly, Neely referred to himself as "America's laziest and dumbest judge." The ad sought “a bright person to keep (the judge) from looking stupid.” Last year he defended the ad, calling it a humorous rebuttal to two “highly pompous” federal appeals judges who he said implied in law review articles that clerks “had to be almost superhuman.”

Armstead, who is serving as chief justice this year, has focused on the work of the court. He said restoring confidence among residents is a priority and that the court now is more open and transparent.

According to state finance records, Neely has spent more than $1.9 million on his campaign, including a $1 million loan. That's 10 times more than has been spent by Armstead and the other candidate in the race, northern panhandle circuit judge David Hummel.

Armstead is completing the 12-year term of convicted former Justice Menis Ketchum, who retired before the House of Delegates held impeachment hearings in 2018. Ketchum was sentenced to probation in federal court on a felony fraud count related to his personal use of a state vehicle and gas fuel card.

Justice Allen Loughry resigned in 2018 and was sentenced in 2019 to two years in prison for federal felony fraud charges.

Loughry and three other justices were impeached by the House of Delegates in 2018 over questions involving lavish office renovations that evolved into accusations of corruption, incompetence and neglect of duty.

Justice Robin Davis retired after impeachment charges were approved against her. Justice Beth Walker was cleared of an impeachment charge in a Senate trial and remains on the court.

The entire process was eventually derailed. The U.S. Supreme Court last October left in place a decision by five acting state Supreme Court justices that prosecuting then-Chief Justice Margaret Workman in the Senate would violated the state constitution's separation of powers clause. That ruling was later applied to also halt impeachment proceedings against Davis and Loughry.

Republican Gov. Jim Justice appointed lifelong friend John Hutchison to Loughry’s seat. A special election Tuesday is for the remainder of Loughry’s term through 2024. Hutchison will face Circuit Judge Lora Dyer and attorney William Schwartz.

Workman is not seeking re-election. Four candidates are hoping to fill her seat for a new 12-year term: Kanawha County Circuit Judge Joanna Tabit, Kanawha County Family Court Judge Jim Douglas, Putnam County assistant prosecutor Kris Raynes and attorney Bill Wooton.

Tabit and Hutchison have received by far the most contributions in their respective races, according to state finance records.

Former Republican Congressman Evan Jenkins won a 2018 special election for Davis’ seat. His term runs through 2024. Walker's term runs through 2028.

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