BECKLEY, W. VA.- LOOTPRESS- Lootpress has received information that has been verified by multiple sources to be genuine that indicates Supreme Court Justice-Elect William “Bill” Wooton has been engaging in political activities, to include assisting in planning the lobbying strategy of a local legislative advocacy organization, as late as November 24, 2020, some five months after his election to the State’s Highest Court.
In emails obtained by Lootpress, it was revealed that Justice-Elect Wooton had been a member of the Government Relations Committee of the Beckley Raleigh County Chamber of Commerce and has been receiving and sending communications with other members of the Committee in an effort to develop a lobbying strategy for the Chamber of Commerce in the upcoming 2021 Regular Session of the West Virginia Legislature. While Chamber of Commerce personnel claim Wooton resigned from the Chamber in June of 2020 upon his election, the emails indicate his inclusion in emails regarding legislative positions, as well as his response to the entire group concerning those positions.
In a November 24, 2020 email, which has been redacted to not publicize members of the Committee that are not government officials, Executive Director Michelle Rotellini calls on the committee to rank its “Legislative Positions” which will be presented to the full Board for approval on December 15, 2020. The email concludes by saying that “the positions will go to print at this point and be distributed to our legislators via formal letter.”
Contained in the email was a document entitled “2021 Positions for Review” which contained eleven position statements which had seemingly been drafted by the Committee at some point prior to the email. The eleven positions were Energy, Environment / Outdoor Economic Development / Recreation / Tourism / Beautification, Government Modernization, Opposing the Elimination of the Equipment and Inventory Tax, Continuing Highway and Infrastructure Funding, Establishing an Independent Legislative Redistricting Committee, Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation, Tax Reform, Medical Cannabis, Establishing Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity as Protected Classifications Statewide, and Protecting Workers from Non-Compete Contracts.
The email from the Chamber of Commerce, which has been marked in the subject line as [External], was sent on November 24, 2020 at 4:14 PM. At 4:37 PM on November 24, 2020 Supreme Court Justice-Elect Bill Wooton replied all to the email as follows:
“I would rank redistricting as the first priority. Raleigh County’s legislative delegation occupied a dominant position in the legislature during the 1950’s, 1960’s, 1970’s, 1980’s, 1990’s and 2000’s. And Beckley’s economic dominance in southern West Virginia was in part a consequence of our legislative dominance. (Legislative dominance contributed to the location of roads and other infrastructure.)
In 2011 Raleigh County was “balkanized”. The carving up of the county resulted in Raleigh County citizens being used to justify legislative seats in Fayette and Mercer Counties, and Raleigh County representatives being selected in part by voters in Summers and Monroe Counties, and by voters in Wyoming County.
Mick Bates does an outstanding job representing us in the House of Delegates, and Brandon Steele likewise is effective. Both would be significantly more effective as members of a larger delegation, and Beckley and Raleigh County would be more of a factor in decisions made by state government.”
The statement by Justice-Elect Wooton appears to advocate a political position concerning the contemplated 2021 redistricting of the House and Senate districts which occurs every ten years following the national census. With the House slated to move to 100 single member districts, Justice-Elect Wooton’s email advocates for the organization to lobby the legislature for a specific result in redistricting. Given the history of Supreme Court rulings on redistricting cases in the past, there is a strong likelihood that Wooton could be called upon to rule on a case regarding redistricting. It is unclear if he would be required to recuse himself given his statements of political position on the matter of redistricting contained in the email.
Wooton is no stranger to politics having entered the political arena in 1976 with his election to the House of Delegates, serving in the East Chamber until 1986. He was re-elected to the House in 1988 and served until 1990. From 1990 until 2000 Wooton served in the West Virginia Senate, where he was appointed the Senate Judiciary Chairman, widely considered to be one of the most power positions in the legislature, let alone the state. Wooton was unseated in the 2000 election by Republican Russ Weeks from Wyoming County in one of the greatest political upsets in the history of Southern West Virginia. Wooton served his entire political career in the Democrat party.
Judges and Magistrates in West Virginia shifted to non-partisan elections in April of 2015. At that time, it was the preference of the state’s voters and legislators that Judges and Magistrates should not be attached to a particular political ideology. This has resulted in an avoidance of political statements, or even position statements, by judicial candidates on any particular political issue.
The Supreme Court adopted Canon 4 of the Judicial Canons of Ethics entitled “A Judge or Candidate for Judicial Office Shall Not Engage in Political or Campaign Activity that is Inconsistent with the Independence, Integrity, or Impartiality of the Judiciary.”
Canon 4.1 states as follows:
Political and Campaign Activities of Judges and Judicial Candidates in General
Except as permitted by law or by Rules 4.2, 4.3, and 4.4, a judge or a judicial candidate shall not:
- act as a leader in, or hold an office in, a political organization;
- make speeches on behalf of a political organization;
- publicly endorse or oppose a candidate for any public office;
- solicit funds for a political organization or a candidate for public office;
- make a contribution to a candidate for public office;
- personally solicit or accept campaign contributions other than through a campaign committee authorized by Rule 4.4;
- use or permit the use of campaign contributions for the private benefit of the judge, the candidate, or others;
- require court staff to participate in a campaign for judicial office, or use court resources in a campaign for judicial office;
- knowingly, or with reckless disregard for the truth, make any false or misleading statement;
- make any statement that would reasonably be expected to affect the outcome or impair the fairness of a matter pending or impending in any court; or
- in connection with cases, controversies, or issues that are likely to come before the court, make pledges, promises, or commitments that are inconsistent with the impartial performance of the adjudicative duties of judicial office.
A judge or judicial candidate shall take reasonable measures to ensure that other persons do not undertake, on behalf of the judge or judicial candidate, any activities prohibited under paragraph (A).
Footnote 1 of Rule 4.1 states as follows:
1] Even when subject to public election, a judge plays a role different from that of a legislator or executive branch official. Rather than making decisions based upon the expressed views or preferences of the electorate, a judge makes decisions based upon the law and the facts of every case. Therefore, in furtherance of this interest, judges and judicial candidates must, to the greatest extent possible, be free and appear to be free from political influence and political pressure. This Canon imposes narrowly tailored restrictions upon the political and campaign activities of all judges and judicial candidates, taking into account the various methods of selecting judges.
Footnote 2 of the same rule states that this rule becomes applicable as soon as a person becomes a candidate for judicial office. Records on file with the West Virginia Secretary of State’s office indicate that Wooton filed as a candidate for the Supreme Court on January 25, 2020.
This rule requires judicial candidates to begin behaving as judges, which largely removes that person from partisan political commentary and operation. In recent history, Supreme Court Justice Tim Armstead, upon declaring his candidacy for the Supreme Court, immediately resigned his position as Speaker of the House of Delegates, his position as a delegate, and all other connections he had enjoyed with the Republican party of his career which spanned decades.
In a statement released by BRCCC Executive Director Michelle Rotellini to Lootpress, Rotellini states that Wooton had resigned from the BRCCC in June when he was elected to office and had inadvertantly been left on the distribution of the November 24, 2020 email. Rotellini stated
“Bill Wooton resigned from the Board of Directors of the Beckley-Raleigh County Chamber of Commerce when he was elected in June. His resignation was accepted an he was removed from letterhead, Board of Director distribution lists, and all printed and online member directory listings.
Mr. Wooton was inadvertently left on the distribution list for the chamber’s Governmental Affairs Committee. It was unnoticed within our organization because the committee had minimal, if any, activity until we convened in late November to begin work on our 2021 legislative positions. Following our initial Zoom call on November 24th, I sent an email to the distribution list asking that each member reply with their thoughts on the chamber’s legislative priorities for 2021. Mr. Wooton replied to the email with his thoughts on redistricting. At that time, I realized that Mr. Wooton had been left on the distribution list. He was removed from the distribution list shortly thereafter.
Lootpress continues to seek further clarifying emails on this issue that may shed additional light on the facts and circumstances under which Justice-Elect Wooton made the statements of November 24, 2020. Given the rapidity and openness of the reply to the other 25 individuals included in the email it remains to be seen if other communications can be uncovered that can provide context to the communication.
Further complicating the matter, at least 3 other government employees, one member of the House of Delegates, and The Raleigh County Circuit Clerk were a part of these conversations. The West Virginia Parkways Executive Director, Jeff Miller, Director of IT Services for the City of Beckley Bill Kelly, Beckley Sanitary Board employee Jeremiah Johnson, District 30 Delegate Mick Bates-D, and Raleigh County Circuit Clerk and Democratic Party Chairman Paul Flanagan-D were included on the original email and the response from Justice-Elect Wooton.
This news comes on the heels of the release from federal custody of former Supreme Court Justice and author of Don’t Buy Another Vote; I Won’t Pay for a Landslide, Allen Loughry. Loughry, and Justices Beth Walker, Margaret Workman, Menis Ketchum, and Robin Davis were impeached by the House of Delegates in 2018 due to rampant abuse of office and malfeasance. Davis and Ketchum resigned office, Justice Walker was censured, and Loughry was ultimately convicted in Federal Court of several crimes which resulted in a twenty-four-month sentence in federal prison. He was released from custody on December 17th and is to serve three years of supervised probation.
In a telephone interview, Wooton stated that his opinion about redistricting had been out there, and the email only contained his opinion. Wooton stated that this had been his public opinion for years, and also stated that he had written articles on the issue going back to 2011. Wooton did confirm that he resigned from the Chamber and the Government Relations Committee in the “spring or early summer of last year” but still pays dues to the Beckley- Raleigh County Chamber of Commerce. Wooton discounted the ethical implications of the email stating that there is nothing there because it was a private statement.