A Pivotal Choice: The Governor and West Virginia’s Urgent Call for Judicial Diversity

West Virginia has a largely declining population, with the only growth in the state being non-white communities. As West Virginia increasingly becomes home to more “all kinds” of folks, it has a big problem: the people making the big decisions in court look different from those in the running court system, and it’s been that way for too long.

In 2021, West Virginia has changed since 2010. Back then, white (non-Hispanic) residents comprised 93.2% of the population. Now, they account for 91.5%. The Hispanic/Latino community has grown the most, jumping 0.7 percentage points to 1.9%. Meanwhile, the white (non-Hispanic) percentage has dropped by 1.7 points.

Black residents comprise only 4% of the population, but their presence is felt more intensely in penal institutions. They account for 17% of jail inmates, 12% of the prison population, and a 23% increase in juvenile system arrests. The imbalance is stark and concerning.

The recent retirement of Circuit Judge Duke Bloom of the Kanawha Circuit Court has spotlighted this issue. Twelve candidates came forward, eager to fill the esteemed position. Two Black women were among them: Nicole Cofer, with a standout résumé from the state Supreme Court, and Zoe Shavers, a sharp Charleston attorney. Their bids are about more than personal goals; they symbolize a community’s longing for fair representation.

The West Virginia Record reported that they believe Stephanie Abraham, with close ties to the Justice Administration, is likely to be the Governor’s preferred choice. Many see this as evidence that political convenience trumps the need for a diverse judiciary.

True justice (not Jim) is about seeing oneself reflected in the system. The call for representation intensifies in a state with a meager number of Black magistrates and a notable absence of judges of color since the retirement of Judge Booker T. Stephens of the 8th Judicial Circuit in 2019. Of the current 160 magistrates (There were 159 magistrates, but one was added to Monongalia County effective July 1, 2023, during the 2023 legislative session) in West Virginia, only four are Black, and just one is Latino.

West Virginia’s past showcases many legal trailblazers: J.R. Clifford, the state’s first Black male lawyer; Leon P. Miller, the first Black judge; and Franklin Cleckley, a Black man who sat on the WV Supreme Court of Appeals pioneer. Black women have also made history, with Irene Berger being a notable figure President Obama appointed to the federal bench. It is important to note that Kanawha County has not had a Circuit Court Judge of color since Judge Irene Berger ascended to the federal bench in 2009.

Yet today, that trailblazing spirit seems lost. After being one of the three candidates recommended to the Governor by the Judicial Vacancy Advisory Commission (JVAC), Nicole Cofer was passed over for Judge Ballard despite her qualifications and previous consideration in 2021. With all the controversy surrounding this critical appointment to the 13th Judicial Circuit, it remains to be seen if the governor will put his hand on the pulse of what our community and justice system need when confronted with candidates of color who possess the same credentials as those with political ties.

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