WHEELING - Greenbrier County Circuit Judge James Rowe said the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals is improving its methods, and that makes it a harder job for 2012 candidates seeking seats on the court.
Rowe, a Democrat, is among those in the race for state Supreme Court this year, and he said he can't help but think back to the court's environment when he last ran in 2004.
West Virginia has often been called a "judicial hellhole" by national legal experts because of the policies of the state Supreme Court. Candidates for the bench could question past policies there.
Rowe said he applauds the court for the new rules it started in January 2011, requiring it be more thorough in reviewing each petition filed with the court.
"It's been a challenge getting folks interested this year, because things are far better off than they were eight years ago," he said. "There's not as much fireworks as there were."
He noted when people are called to focus on the court, they realize how important it is "and they get engaged."
Things to Know About James Rowe
Greenbrier County Circuit Court Judge
Law Degree: George Mason University
16 years experience as judge
Served eight years in West Virginia House of Delegates - four years as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, two years as majority leader.
"I remind people how court decisions do affect every aspect of their lives - from safety in their homes and communities, their taxes, their children, even the ability to keep a job," Rowe said.
"Once they talk about that a little bit, they understand how important it is."
Rowe, 61, has served as judge for the 11th Judicial Circuit encompassing Greenbrier and Pocahontas counties for 16 years. He added that during that time he has addressed issues facing the courts and communities, and that his experience and knowledge will be needed on the court as current Justice Thomas McHugh is retiring.
"Anyone not being an extreme partisan would agree he has been one of the best jurists the state has seen in generations," Rowe commented. "He is well-balanced, fair, and had that experience as a circuit court judge.
"With his retirement, we are losing that perspective and understanding. It's my sense we need to replace that. It's my hope I can fill that role."
He added that drug abuse is a problem across West Virginia, and the drug court program he oversees has been successful in Greenbrier County. Rowe also began an initiative to address high truancy rates in the schools there, and he intends to bring his experience to the Supreme Court "and duplicate that statewide."
"I also believe that in the past, the third branch of government - as we all know a co-equal branch - has gotten a pass, if you will, in being accountable for economic issues," he said. "As I've heard in this valley, we wring our hands and see business go west (to Ohio) or east (to Pennsylvania). West Virginia is the third choice often, and why? We've got good workers, and good infrastructure. But in the past, the courts have scared people off.
"We can't be serious about ensuring our communities, our families and our citizens are prosperous if we don't have jobs, because it all boils down to jobs. I want to insure we are in the main stream of American jurisprudence, but also that the court be responsible for its appropriate role on economic issues and jobs issues. Court decisions do affect jobs and the ability to land jobs, and that goes hand in glove with the issue of our reputation nationally."
Rowe isn't convinced the establishment of an intermediate appellate court is necessary in West Virginia, and he thinks it will be another six months to a year before legal experts determine whether the Supreme Court's new rules are working.
"The court has the constitutional responsibility not just to provide the proper review of every petition, but also has the responsibility of educating the Bar and the public as to what the law is," Rowe said. "If that is being done with the new rules, then wonderful. If not, we need to look very seriously at the intermediate appellate court to make sure cases are being properly reviewed.
"My sense is if someone is getting homecooking in Pocahontas County because Judge Rowe was more interested in politics than he was in the rule of law, then we're still in a 'hellhole.'"
Candidate James Rowe: Question & Answer
"It's very important. One of the reasons why the current court works well is (current justice) Tom McHugh, and his experience and understanding as a circuit court judge. We are losing him, and the state needs a justice who has that experience and understanding."
"It is much improved, and I think it will get better with transparency, balance and solving this description of the state's judicial climate - addressing that in a responsible way."
"The single greatest issue is the court's proper role as a co-equal branch of government to permit and allow citizens to have jobs. Everything is driven by the economics of the situation. This state can succeed only if we have a prosperous economy - and have people working with jobs that pay benefits. And that is dependent upon having value added employers."
"I've tried very hard to be fair, be disciplined in my job and not pre-judge or have an agenda. I think the process is so important in that you've got to give people the right to be heard, and afford them the right to be heard in court. I tried to do that when I chaired a committee in the Legislature. I insisted everything we did be transparent, and everything be given proper notice. You've heard stories of all the things that go on there - that didn't happen in my committee, and it doesn't happen in my court."
"The court came to our county, and actually left with some ideas from some of things we were doing that were paying dividends and were working. There have been some allegations that the court is overstepping its authority in doing that. But what I have observed so far is they are really raising the awareness and public interest in that.
"We all have to be very careful to ensure we don't overstep our authority. If you're careful, you don't do that. You have to follow the law, and you have to apply the law, of course. I view it as being engaged and understanding what needs to be done, as opposed to overstepping and being an activist. There is a difference.
"In the past, courts were supposed to be passive and not do anything unless something comes before it. We're past that now. We can't afford to be just passive anymore. We've got to be attuned to what is going on in our communities and state."