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Eastern Panhandle circuit judge candidates spend money on campaigns

October 04, 2008|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.VA.

The amount of money spent on the two races for circuit judge in the Eastern Panhandle is on track to reach $200,000, but most of the money is coming from the candidates themselves.

"I don't know how you take the money out of (judicial) elections because ... they are costly to run, to get your name out there," said Harry P. Waddell, who has spent more than $60,000 in his campaign for the Division 5 seat in the 23rd Judicial Circuit, which comprises Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan counties.

Created by the West Virginia Legislature in 2006, the Division 5 seat is held by Gina M. Groh, who had spent nearly $40,000 on her campaign, according to campaign finance reports filed last month.

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Circuit judges are elected to eight-year terms and are paid $116,000 per year.

Waddell, 58, of Martinsburg, said that nonpartisan elections could help alleviate campaign costs, and said he is opposed to appointing judges, saying that would open the door for more "closed-door" politics.

Groh, 44, of Charles Town, W.Va., who was appointed to the Division 5 seat by Gov. Joe Manchin in December 2006, said she was selected through a merit selection process and was one of three finalists for the appointment.

"It wasn't the popular person that was passed on (to the governor for his decision)," Groh said. "It was based on qualifications."

Groh said some combination of merit selection and election could be an option that the Legislature could explore.

With 27 years of legal experience, Waddell said he would be a "quality judge" who would be "a very trusted, respected judge who people believe will decide cases objectively and fairly based on the facts and not beholden to anyone except the voters of the Eastern Panhandle."

Before being appointed, Groh had served as an assistant prosecuting attorney in both Berkeley and Jefferson counties since 1998.

"I have always treated everyone that I've been in contact with fairly and impartially, and I continue to do that and I think my record speaks for itself on that," Groh said.

In the Division 2 judicial circuit race, Martinsburg attorney Michael D. Lorensen had outspent his opponent, attorney and current 16th District state Sen. John C. Yoder, by nearly $40,000, according to campaign finance records.

"I'm sure a lot of the money that I'm spending isn't as effective as just going out and meeting people and trying to talk to (them face to face about the campaign)," said Lorensen, 49, who has spent almost $30,000 on his campaign.

Yoder, 57, of Harpers Ferry, W.Va., said he has favored merit selection of judges, and thinks the money spent in judicial races should be taken out of the campaigns altogether. He had spent about $9,200, according to his campaign's September finance report.

"I think it's wrong for lawyers to give big money to judges' campaigns before they appear in court in front of the judges," said Yoder, who served as a district court judge in Kansas and was a U.S. Supreme Court Fellow before starting his private practice in West Virginia more than 20 years ago.

Lorensen said he didn't know what the "practical solution" would be to reduce the amount of money spent on campaigns, but noted the judicial races across the state already include some merit input from the West Virginia State Bar, which conducted a voluntary opinion survey of its members prior to the election.

In his 20 years with Bowles Rice McDavid Graff & Love in Martinsburg, Lorensen's practice has concentrated on civil litigation, handling disputes such as car accidents, contract cases and land use.

Yoder's practice has concentrated on complex civil litigation, constitutional law, appellate law, employment discrimination and land use.

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