Old divorce case echoes in Supreme Court race
Even in the small world of West Virginia politics, this year's Supreme Court race has a remarkably connected cast of characters.
Two sitting justices and two candidates for the court have been in and out of each other's crossfire for nearly two decades now.
Much of their sometimes-contentious acquaintance can be traced to the early-1990s divorce of Sen. Truman Chafin and his wife, former Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Gretchen Lewis.
The senator's relationship with a woman helped prompt the divorce. That woman was Tish Chafin, whom the senator, D-Mingo, has since married. She is now one of two Democrats running this year for one of two 12-year terms on the court.
The other Democrat in this year's race is incumbent Justice Robin Davis. She was Lewis' attorney for part of the long and convoluted divorce proceedings.
But it isn't just Davis and the Chafins who were mixed up in the legal wrangling, nor is the divorce itself the only case they fought about.
Republican Supreme Court candidate John Yoder, now a circuit judge in Berkeley County judge, represented Truman Chafin during a divorce-related case.
In 2001, Justice Margaret Workman, a Democrat who was re-elected to the court in 2008, filed a complaint against Yoder with the state's lawyer disciplinary board. Workman said she was a victim of "judicial stalking" by Yoder and both Chafins - Tish and Truman - during the 1990s when the senator wanted her removed from hearing divorce-related matters.
Supreme Courts in recent memory were known for their infighting. That's apparently ended and the court has calmed. But there have been a few expressions, some in private, about how the court could change depending on who is elected next month.
Asked to comment on how the past could affect the five-member court's future, Tish Chafin said the past's events are "history rather than news."
"At times we have vigorously represented our positions against each other but, once these matters were resolved, we hold the highest regard for one another's passion for the practice of law and the judiciary," Chafin said in a statement.
Davis said she has always conducted herself as a justice in a "professional manner."
"No matter who is here, that is how I will continue to conduct myself as a justice on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals," Davis said in a telephone interview.
The divorce episode lasted about a decade. Elements of the case bounced to the state Supreme Court.
"The parties have been in court substantially longer than they cohabited as husband and wife," the high court remarked in 1998 when one part of the Chafin-Lewis proceedings reached it. The case would not end for several more years and took a number of twists.
In December 1995, jurors deliberated for seven hours before acquitting Truman Chafin of charges he conspired to wiretap Lewis' telephone.
Starting in early 1994, the senator tried to get Workman off the case because her then-secretary was friends with Lewis. Workman denied that had any bearing on her thinking about the case and refused to recuse herself.
But in 1999, Workman said Chafin had finally created the conflict of interest he had long said existed. Workman stepped away from the case in order to challenge his criticisms of her. Workman said the senator had tried to "stalk, harass and defame" her.
The divorce case spilled over, too.
In 2000, Yoder and both Chafins - who run a firm together in Mingo County - filed court papers that suggested wrongdoing by Davis and The Segal Law Firm. Davis worked at the firm with her husband, Scott Segal, before she joined the court. At the time, Davis told one newspaper she was "not going to cower to a bully."
The Segal firm said the Yoder-Chafin filing was retaliation against Davis for her private legal work for Lewis in the divorce case. Davis recused herself from matters related to the divorce after she was elected to the court in 1996.
Despite all this, Davis, Yoder and Tish Chafin all say they can work together professionally if they are elected to the court.
At least one of the three will win a 12-year term this year. Republican Allen Loughry is also seeking a seat on the court.
Loughry was not involved in the divorce-related cases, though he's currently Workman's law clerk. Workman did not respond to a message seeking comment.
"The events in this story occurred over a decade ago," Tish Chafin said in a statement. "Since then Justice Davis and I have attended social functions at each other's homes on a number of recent occasions. My husband and I held a fundraiser at our home for Justice Workman when she was reelected to the court four years ago, and my children will be in her daughter's wedding party. This same daughter also worked for my husband in his Senate office."
She added, "The voters deserve a discussion of those issues - not stories from the past."
One of the issues in Chafin's campaign has been judicial recusals. Since the run-in with Workman, Sen. Chafin proposed bills that would allow other Supreme Court justices to overrule a justice who refused to step down from a case - a plan similar to what Tish Chafin now backs.
Yoder, likewise, said he didn't hold any grudges.
"I just think it's like a red herring that people throw up," Yoder said.
Yoder said he's visited "amicably" with Workman.
"When I meet Justice Davis, I'm always very cordial with her and she's always cordial with me," Yoder said.
Davis said the divorce case was a long time ago and she had "zealously" represented her client, Lewis, in the divorce.
Davis said she's worked with 13 different justices in her 15 years on the court.
"I think anybody that knows me knows that I conduct myself in a professional manner and that ethics and morals are the most critical component of my being," Davis said.