In the weeks ahead, as Gov. Jim Justice weighs the qualifications of nominees to fill the Supreme Court of Appeals vacancy left by the resignation of Allen Loughry, we hope he steers clear of appointing yet another politician – as he did twice in his first and second runs at stacking the court – and instead chooses to restore judicial experience and philosophical balance.
With the scent of scandal still thick in the air – four justices impeached over questions involving lavish office renovations, incompetence and neglect of duty – the court needs a person of proven integrity.
Thankfully, voters have already weighed in – if the governor cares to listen. Judge Joanna I. Tabit, serving on the Kanawha County Circuit Court, received nearly 112,000 votes in the race for the high court in the Nov. 6 midterms, finishing second to Tim Armstead in her division and collecting the third most votes in both divisions among 20 candidates. She nearly doubled the vote total for the fourth-place finisher.
Citizens saw something in Tabit that they liked. Reviewing her legal career, we, too, think she would be a credible and commendable addition to the bench.
There is nothing inherently wrong with the prospect of politicians – or any other professionals who hold a law degree, for that matter – serving on the court. Besides, West Virginia voters just elected two well-known politicians – former U.S. Representative Evan Jenkins and House of Delegates Speaker Armstead – for the bench in the recent elections.
Let it be noted that citizens also elected Loughry to the bench in 2012, and now he stands convicted of 11 federal charges including wire fraud, mail fraud, lying to federal investigators and witness tampering.
Taking a vote of citizens is not a sure-fire method of handing over an elected official who will serve honorably. History is littered with such scoundrels and evidence.
But neither are there any certainties in reducing the candidate list to only law school grads who have spent much of their careers practicing law.
Loughry taught us that, too, and now he faces up to 395 years in prison.
Still, two politicians seem more than enough on a five-member court.
Besides, as well-known partisans, both Jenkins and Armstead have written, supported and opposed their fair share of high-profile and contentious legislation that could be argued before the court. We do not need a court beset by questions of fairness and conflict of interest – real or imagined. Nor do we need justices whose decision-making is guided by political considerations.
We do not need a court of constant recusal.
So, Joanna Tabit.
A lifelong West Virginian born in Fayette County and a West Virginia University law school graduate, Tabit has spent her entire legal career in a courtroom, either as a trial judge or a litigator.
She also served as a personal law clerk to former Supreme Court Justice Thomas E. McHugh.
Tabit has an impressive and loaded resume that includes stints as an adjunct lecturer teaching Summer Appellate Advocacy for the West Virginia University College of Law and membership on the Juvenile Justice Commission. She serves on the Mass Litigation Panel and on the Business Court.
Most pertinent to one of our state’s more contemporary issues, we think, is that she presides over Kanawha County’s Juvenile Drug Court. With more than 50 percent of the docket for circuit courts littered with abuse and neglect cases – the majority of which stem from some level of drug addiction – Tabit is deeply knowledgeable of and experienced with laws, resources and processes that address one of the more insidious problems with which this state continues to struggle.
Tabit offers Justice the remarkable and enviable nonpartisan occasion to appoint a smart, studied and battle-tested justice to the state’s highest court who would hit the ground running.
Best of all? There’s not a whiff of corruption about her.
Given all of what has transpired this past year, we hope the governor does his part to begin the process of re-establishing our state’s courts as a fair and impartial arbiter of our most pressing disputes.
With Tabit, he could do a lot worse. Let’s hope he doesn’t.