Behind the curtain: A look into the ‘mysterious’ branch of gover - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

Behind the curtain: A look into the ‘mysterious’ branch of government

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picture from the West Virginia Supreme Court picture from the West Virginia Supreme Court
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There's much more to serving as a West Virginia Supreme Court justice than writing opinions and listening to oral arguments.

 "It may sound silly but some people still think judges should do the whole Judge Judy thing, which is not what judges do," said West Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Brent Benjamin.

So, what do these mysterious black-robed figures do?

Besides the obvious of hearing appealed circuit court cases, granting writs and issuing decisions, justices also can take an active role in the community through extracurricular initiatives.

Some of these initiatives include Access to Justice and other efforts dealing with truancy, drug courts and conducting mock trials.  

"It's important for judges to do those extra things because the judiciary is the most mysterious branch of government," Benjamin said. "It's very technical, hard to understand and a lot of people are afraid of it. It's an important part of educational outreach to do things like the mock trials, to have judges or judicial officers read to kids and to talk to them to do competitions with college kids and law school kids.

And justices can be no different than any one else, Benjamin said. Each justice displays his or her own court persona.  

"As chief justice, much of it is simply trying to coordinate five very different personalities and focus them on the matter at hand. We have a very dynamic people," Benjamin said.

Justice Menis Ketchum, who was elected to the bench in 2008, sometimes can have a jocular demeanor.

 "The fact that Justice Ketchum may make you laugh — it's certainly a reflection of his personality," Benjamin said. "He gets to the heart of it and he has the unique ability to ask a very important question but do it in a way that is not exactly funny but not harsh either. I think he puts attorneys at ease so they can get into a discussion."

Ketchum, of course, has a serious side too, especially when it comes to research, Benjamin said.

"He certainly is one on the court who will ask you about cases that reflect on this, especially those that have recently been decided. It encourages people to not stop the researching once you file a brief because Justice Ketchum, especially, will look at every case that comes up to the day before trial."

Justice Margaret Workman, who was elected in 1988 as the first woman on the court and later was elected again in 2008, focuses on the effect the high court's decision will have on families and children, Benjamin said.

"She's always interested in what the ultimate impact is going to be," Benjamin added. "She looks at the impact on the law and individuals. She's very compassionate. …When I look here, I see people who think these are the most important cases in the world. And we can't forget that. This isn't just an academic case. Each case is about people's lives."

Benjamin said Justice Robin Davis, who was first elected in 1996 and re-elected in 2000 and 2012, can be sensitive to majority trends and how West Virginia's laws compare to other states.

What about the newest justice on the bench?

"A lot of people are still wondering and studying him," Benjamin said of Justice Allen Loughry, who was elected last year. "He listens very intently and as I see him, he listens and waits for that opportunity to ask that very precise important question. It's going to be interesting to see how he develops."

So, what is Benjamin like? Benjamin was elected to a 12-year term in 2004.

"For me, in addition to making certain as chief that other justices get to answer their questions and don't talk over each other, I'm always interested in how it impacts the constitution," Benjamin said. "It's no secret to attorneys who participate that I'm looking to see if there is a constitutional angle."

"I'm attempting to preserve that constitution and not impinge on constitutional rights of individuals," he added.

Benjamin said justices get along on and off the bench.

"We stay in frequent telephone contact," he said. "Not just about law but on national matters too. I think we do genuinely care about each other."

"We're almost like a family," Benjamin added. "It doesn't mean we always get along with each other. We not only recognize that we are elected to be an individual and to bring something different to the table when we decide cases. Each one of us has a different background and has a dynamic individual character. What's good is we have the ability to get along well together and we have camaraderie. And when we get behind closed doors, we can disagree and discuss things for hours and still disagree but the difference with this court is that there are no tantrums and no grudges."

And Benjamin said for the future, he hopes West Virginians can not only be proud of its court system but also lose their fear of it.

"We, as Americans, need to be proud of our court system," he said. "It is here for our use, not be afraid of it."