Shepherdstown attorney David Hammer will face off against Judge Debra McLaughlin in a May 8 election to be Circuit Court Judge in the Eastern Panhandle.
Following the passing of Judge John Yoder last year, Governor Jim Justice appointed McLaughlin to fill the seat. McLaughlin assumed the seat on September 18, 2017.
Hammer and McLaughlin were guests on the show This Week in Morgan County hosted by Russell Mokhiber.
McLaughlin made it clear that she was the candidate more experienced in the criminal law. Hammer is a trial lawyer who practices primarily on the civil side. McLaughlin was the Morgan County prosecutor for 18 years.
McLaughlin said that the vast majority of time a judge spends in the courtroom is on criminal cases. And she is more experienced in the criminal law.
What are the major types of criminal cases you face as a judge?
“They are the same I had as a prosecutor,” McLaughlin said. “Morgan County has the same types of cases as Berkeley and Jefferson only we have them in lesser numbers. We might have one murder every four years. Unfortunately, in Berkeley and Jefferson, they will have murders to a greater extent than Morgan County sees them.”
What are the criminal law problems in Morgan County?
“The reality is that crimes are motivated or affected in some part by drugs,” McLaughlin said. “Mostly opiates. Sometimes it’s alcohol. Sometimes it’s marijuana. You name it, across the board it’s affected by drugs. Most robberies, burglaries, break ins — it’s people wanting to steal, they pawn the items for money to support their drug habits.”
“The drug problem isn’t a new problem. The number of deaths from opiates — that’s what is new. And that’s what is drawing attention.”
What can be done about it?
“One of the things is drug courts. Drug courts have been around only for two or three years now in the Eastern Panhandle. At this point in time, we are running two drug courts — one out of Berkeley County and one out of Jefferson County. Morgan County does not actively have a drug court. They could utilize the drug court in either Berkeley or Jefferson County. But the defendant or probationer would have to go to those counties to receive services.”
Hammer said that while he is experienced in the criminal law, his caseload for years now has been primarily a civil caseload.
“The criminal law is one volume of the code,” Hammer said. “And there are more than 50 volumes of the code. Then there is the entire administrative law, which is much larger than the code. And then there is the common law. When we are talking about people’s property and their liberty interests, it’s important that safeguards are in place so that we don’t have property — money — being taken from people wrongly. If you talk to people who have been injured, people who have been harmed, it’s very important that we have a process that makes people whole, but does so in a fair manner.”
Hammer said he will not accept contributions to his campaign. Instead, he will fund his campaign out of his own bank account.
“I realize that political campaigns are expensive, but I don’t want to sit on the bench and have litigants, attorneys, witnesses, or jurors wonder if special treatment is being given to parties who were campaign donors,” Hammer says on his campaign website. “I will not accept any monetary donations. If I believe in myself as a candidate, I should be willing to pay for this campaign myself.”
“In judge races, it is particularly odious,” Hammer told This Week in Morgan County. “Every time a check is written, there is going to be a record of that check, it is going to be published on the West Virginia Secretary of State’s website and any future litigant or future lawyer will be able to look down that list and see whether or not his opponent has given money to that judge’s campaign.”
“The judges are supposed to keep it anonymous. They are not supposed to look at it. But even if a judge doesn’t look at it — and that’s a stretch — but even if a judge doesn’t look at it, still yet, the litigants before the judge know that.”
“I’ve written checks many times to judicial candidates. I don’t like the process. I don’t like how it looks. If you are serious about the position and serious about maintaining the integrity of the office, you should simply save your money and do it on your own resources.”
“Judge McLaughlin has been on salary from state tax dollars for years now,” Hammer said. “She was a prosecutor for years. Her husband is a physician. Obviously, running for office is a family decision. It affects not just you but your spouse, your children. If this was a plan, my suggestion is — save your money, maintain the integrity of the office and don’t solicit contributions, particularly from lawyers who are going to appear before you and particularly from litigants who might appear before you.”
McLaughlin said that — “as a trial court judge, my job is to follow rules.”
“When they decided to make judges a non partisan position, they set up a set of rules for how a judge can go about raising money,” McLaughlin said. “It is an elected position. The question is — do you want just an attorney out there in the private sector who has a huge pot of money that they can draw from, a business that they can run advertising through? If you do your business advertising, that doesn’t count toward your campaign funds.” (Hammer’s law firm advertises regularly on local radio stations, including on WRNR in Martinsburg.)
“It requires us to have a committee. I myself cannot ask a single person for any money. And nor do I ask a single person for money. The committee does. The committee tracks the money that comes in. The committee reports it to the state. And there is an accounting of it.”
“People are obviously influenced by those who support them,” McLaughlin said. “The question is — as a judge are you able to set those things aside? Are we able to trust you not to look at who has donated the money to your campaign? Are we able to trust you not to go to the Secretary of State’s office and look at those donations and to be a judge, to be fair and impartial? My years of service as a prosecutor shows that I have a track record of being fair and impartial, in choosing what cases get prosecuted, how they get prosecuted.”