By Ron Gregory
CHARLESTON — The issue of whether an unexpired Mingo County Family Court judge position will be filled by gubernatorial appointment or election remained controversial this week.
In addition, a letter written by W. Thomas Ward, Williamson attorney, gave insight into who the candidates for appointment may be.
In a letter dated Aug. 14, Ward wrote to Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, arguing that the vacant position should be filled by an appointment by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin rather than through voters at the Nov. 4 general election.
Ward copied his letter to three other Mingo County attorneys, apparently attempting to advise candidates for the appointment of his position. It is clear, then, that according to Ward’s letter, he is seeking the governor’s appointment along with attorneys “Duke” Jewell, Robert Carlton and Diana Carter-Wiedel.
The time for submitting applications to the Judicial Vacancy Advisory Commission passed at 5 p.m. Tuesday, although the governor’s office refuses to make the names public until Friday. While the West Virginia Code says the names become public information when the deadline passes, aides in the governor’s office say Chief Counsel Peter Marcum believes the office should wait two days to see if anyone filed by mail before the deadline.
The Family Court position became vacant when Tomblin appointed former Family Court Judge Miki Thompson as the successor to disgraced former circuit judge Michael Thornsbury. The point of controversy surrounding filling the spot occurred since Tomblin’s appointment came more than 84 days before the general election.
The Mingo Democrat Executive Committee met on Aug. 5 and voted to direct a letter to County Clerk “Big Jim” Hatfield, telling him Democrats wanted to place Jewell on the ballot as their candidate. Since the vacancy occurred, some in the governor’s office, as well as Tennant’s office, have maintained the vacancy is to be filled by Tomblin’s appointee.
But county Democrat Chairman H. Truman Chafin said he and the executive committee believe they have the opportunity to fill the spot at the November election. In any case, all parties appear to agree that Tomblin can make an appointment after the Advisory Commission recommends between two and five of the applicants to him. The issue is whether the person named by Tomblin would serve the remainder of the unexpired term or simply be in office until a successor is selected by voters.
In his letter to Tennant, Ward notes the dispute and says he agrees that the position is to be filled only by the governor with no election held. He cites a 1994 case involving former Republican Chairman Richie Robb and then-Gov. Gaston Caperton where the supreme court apparently ruled that such appointments belong to the governor.
In his letter, Ward asks Tennant to “take such action as you deem appropriate to address this matter and provide not only clarity to myself (sic) but to others who may have applied for the appointment.” Ward says he fears that, if Tennant does not act promptly, Jewell could be elected in November to fill a term that the governor already believes he has filled.
Ward included a syllabus of the Robb versus Caperton case as part of his mailing.
A spokesman in Tennant’s office did not immediately respond to a reporter’s question as to whether the secretary of state had actually received Ward’s letter.