Will Workman bow out?

Bet on Joanna Tabit. That’s the conventional wisdom among some observers of state politics — and even these days, when once-solid political assessments are being called into question, it’s probably the correct call.

Tabit, a circuit judge in Kanawha County, is trying again for a seat on the state Supreme Court. Three seats on the high court will be up for grabs during the primary election in May. Because judicial elections are nonpartisan, top vote-getters then will win.

Following Supreme Court politics has become one of those situations in which one needs a scorecard to keep track of who’s running for what. Last year’s high court scandal, eventually resulting in three justices being kicked out of office and replaced, complicates the process.

Here, in a nutshell, is the scorecard:

Chief Justice Elizabeth Walker’s term doesn’t end until 2029, so she’s not part of the 2020 picture.

Likewise for Justice Evan Jenkins, elected last fall to an unexpired term that doesn’t end until Dec. 31, 2024.

Justice Tim Armstead is up for re-election, though he was elected only last fall. That’s because he was picked to fill an unexpired term that ends Dec. 31, 2020.

Justice John A. Hutchison, formerly a Raleigh County circuit judge, was appointed by Gov. Jim Justice to fill the unexpired term of disgraced ex-Justice Allen Loughry. Though Loughry’s term didn’t end until 2029, the timing of Hutchison’s appointment means he has to stand for election next spring.

That’s two high court posts on the May 2020 ballot.

Now for the wild card, Justice Margaret Workman, whose current term concludes at the end of next year. The post she occupies will be on the ballot in May. But will she be on it? Perhaps not, it is being speculated in Charleston.

Workman has had a distinguished career in public service. This is not her first term on the Supreme Court. She became the first woman ever elected to the court, in 1998. She has served there for more than two decades.

She got caught up in last year’s scandal — though she was never accused of criminal wrongdoing such as the misdeeds that brought down two justices. Members of the House of Delegates voted to impeach her, but only on failure to implement certain policies for the court and in a dispute over salaries of circuit judges as set by the high court.

A state Senate impeachment trial for Workman was blocked by court action involving a dispute over separation of powers. That case is before the U.S. Supreme Court. Most senators would be happy to drop the Workman matter, I think — but it’s being kept alive to settle that separation of powers issue.

Workman may have had enough of politics. Retirement may be appealing. She hasn’t filed pre-candidacy papers with the secretary of state’s office.

How does it all shake out in May, if Workman sits it out?

Armstead wins re-election handily. In last fall’s election, he won the post he sought easily, with 131,296 votes. Jenkins blew past the field, with 182,133 votes — but he doesn’t have to run this time around.

Right behind Armstead was Tabit, at 111,915 votes. If anything, she may do better in May. Some voters may decide that if Workman isn’t a candidate, she ought to be replaced by another woman.

Thus far, Tabit is the only female in the race, and she hasn’t lost any popularity since last fall. Of those who have filed pre-candidacy papers, she’s raised the second-largest amount of money, behind only Armstead.

Actually, according to the last round of campaign finance reports, those two are the only high court candidates with money in the bank ($27,700 for Armstead, $25,271 for Tabit — but it’s still early.

At this point, pick Hutchison for the third high court spot. He’s the incumbent, even though he was appointed less than a year ago, and he’s seems popular in southern counties (enough that he was unopposed for re-election as a circuit judge in 2016).

It’s still early. But Tabit will only grow stronger, so if Workman bows out, keep your money on her.

Myer can be reached at: mmyer@theintelligencer.net.

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