Liability, Non-Partisan Elections, & Labor Cause an Uproar in the House

Feb 4, 2015

Delegate Mike Caputo speaks against House Bill 2117.
Credit Daniel Walker / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

For years, Republicans have called for nonpartisan election of Supreme Court Justices. But the Democrats never put the issue on the agenda. Now having taken control of the House, Republicans finally got their wish.

Before confronting that issue, the house took up Senate Bill 13, which protects a landowner from liability if someone is injured on his or her property.  The bill re-instates the open and obvious doctrine.  It means a property owner won’t be responsible for injuries that a person sustains if it’s clear what the conditions are.  

Delegate John Shott, chairman of the Judiciary committee, stood to explain that this bill would be worthwhile.

“What we’re doing here is, today if we vote in favor of this bill is saying that regardless of a few remote horror stories, we think its legitimate policy of this state to protect those people who have premises. In those situations where the injuries caused by something as well known and obvious to the person who’s injured as it would be to the person who occupies those premises,” Shott explained.

Senate Bill 13 passed 81 to 18.

Then it was on to House Bill 2010, the non-partisan election bill.

Again, Judiciary Chairman Shott explained why this is good for the state.

“This removes the taint of a partisan election from the operation of our judiciary," Shott said, "and it extends not only to our state’s Supreme Court of Appeals, but to our circuit judges, our family court judges, and our magistrates, and this is intended to remove any perception that those individuals might be beholding to a particular party organization or a particular group of people with whom that party is perceived as being affiliated.”

Delegate Barbara Evans Fleischauer stood to oppose the bill, saying voters want to know which party their candidate is affiliated with.

“Well in our state, we’ve had some pretty bad experiences with money in judicial elections, and there have been accusations that judicial seats have been purchased by individuals. By not knowing what party a person’s in, you are deprived of information, and that you otherwise would have in any other election,” Fleischauer said.

But the bill passed overwhelmingly 90 to 9.

But there was uproar about House Bill 2217, relating to the qualifications of the commissioner of labor. This bill changes the current definition of the labor commissioner by taking out the words “labor interests of the state” and inserts “with experience in employee issues and employee-employer relations.”

Delegate Mike Caputo, a labor representative, clearly did not like the bill.

“This is nothing, Mr. Speaker, in my opinion, with all due respect but a poke in the eye with a sharp stick to the working men and women in West Virginia," Caputo explained, "I just cannot believe that we’re about to vote on a bill that could allow a Don Blankenship to become the commissioner of labor in the state of West Virginia. I can’t believe we’re about the vote on a bill that someone who had nothing but the interest of the corporation at heart their entire adult life can now become the commissioner of labor. Now nothing against corporate executives, we need them, and they need to tend to the business of that corporation, so we can have jobs in West Virginia, but when it comes down to the grassroots level of that working mom, somebody needs to look out for her, and nobody’s going to look out for her other than someone who worked their entire adult life for a paycheck and took the interest of workers at heart.”

Delegate Michael Ihle spoke to try and reason with the word change, using an example from his own experience.

“I deal with both union and nonunion employees, and one of the accomplishments that we, and I do say we, have is a month into my term, we negotiated a labor agreement that was passed unanimously, and I say that not to brag on myself but to brag on our employees. But more relevantly, I say that to illustrate that the interest of management and the interest of labor are not always mutually exclusive," Ihle said, "And I feel some of the rhetoric that I’ve heard from those who oppose the legislation reflects that belief that those interests must naturally conflict with each other, and I don’t believe that to be the case at all. I think if we’re to move our state forward, if we are to create an environment that is friendly to more jobs for both union and nonunion employees, all interest of labor, if we’re to do that, then we have to move beyond the mentality that labor and management are mutually exclusive.”

House Bill 2117 passed 64 to 35.