CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia voters head to the polls next month to decide whether to allow Gov. Jim Justice's two picks for the state Supreme Court to continue serving.
Justice appointed U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins and former GOP House Speaker Tim Armstead to the high court to serve out the terms of Justices Robin Davis and Menis Ketchum. They resigned earlier this year amid an impeachment scandal.
Although the races are officially nonpartisan, the Nov. 6 contests will give the state's voters their first chance to weigh in on the Supreme Court spending scandal that some Democrats say was really a run on the court by Republican lawmakers. A win by the two high-profile Republicans would rebuff those claims, while their defeat would look more like a political backlash.
Voters will decide whether to keep Jenkins and Armstead on the court or choose two new justices from among another 18 candidates on the ballot. The situation is a first in West Virginia history and has not been seen elsewhere, so it will be closely watched beyond the state's borders.
"This is something that is entirely unprecedented in the entire history of our nation," said Greg Bowman, dean of West Virginia University's law school. "It really is hard to tell how this is going to turn out."
Justice said his appointments help restore "honor and integrity" to the state's highest court.
But Democrats view the impeachment of Davis and three other justices by the House of Delegates, along with the appointments of Jenkins and Armstead, as a GOP move to stack the court.
Supreme Court elections were changed to nonpartisan in 2016, meaning candidates are no longer identified on the ballot as belonging to a political party. But that doesn't eliminate party politics from playing a role in how voters make their decisions, Bowman said.
West Virginia Democratic Party chairwoman Belinda Biafore said the party will provide "blanket support" to its nine candidates in the two races and not promote one over another.
"We will certainly promote who not to vote for," Biafore said, referring to Jenkins and Armstead. "The biggest thing is, we just want to put some integrity back into that court."
The multitude of candidates on the ballot - 10 in each of two Supreme Court districts - has complicated the election, but a clearer picture should emerge with candidate forums scheduled for Oct. 15 and 18 at the state Culture Center in Charleston.
Jenkins and Armstead are among the most recognizable candidates, along with former Democratic Senate President Jeff Kessler and a few others who have previously run for political office. There also are four current judges and more than a dozen attorneys.
Only one woman is in each race. Kanawha County Circuit Judge Joanna Tabit, a former Supreme Court law clerk, is seeking Ketchum's seat through 2020. Charleston attorney Dennise Renee Smith filed for the spot formerly held by Davis, whose seat expires in 2024.
Sixteen candidates live in the southern half of the state and just one is from the Eastern Panhandle. Some circuit judges have served as temporary Supreme Court justices when others stepped aside from hearing a case.
Marshall University political science professor Marybeth Beller said it's fair "to assume that the governor's appointees have the upper hand unless there's a real backlash with people who are following the court right now and would really like to get in judges who have fair, solid records and are not going to play partisan games."
According to recent finance reports, Tabit's campaign has raised $199,000, more than triple that of Armstead. In the other race, Jenkins is by far the top fundraiser with nearly $70,000.