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Monday, June 17, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

In Coal Country, a Fight Over a Judgeship

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (CN) - Deep in the southern coalfields of West Virginia, nestled in a verdant valley now covered in the reds, oranges and golds of autumn, sits the humble town of Williamson, the seat of Mingo County.

If one should happen to onto 2nd Avenue, a broad thoroughfare bustling with mom and pop stores, one may run into a giant bear of a man.

At 6 feet 2 inches tall, Mingo County Clerk Big Jim Hatfield's figure casts quite a shadow in Williamson, a downtown sandwiched between the Tug River on one side, and the seemingly endless line of coal-laden trains that traverse the tracks on the other side of town.

It is for his generosity that Hatfield is most well known.

The locals tell of a man who offers everyone who comes to visit a soda pop from the refrigerator he keeps in his overflowing office and, of course something to eat, usually a bologna sandwich.

Mostly, they describe Hatfield, the duly-elected county clerk, as a man who knows everyone and always finds someone to talk to when he feels like socializing.

"Why, just the other day, he asked me, 'Sis, what do you want to eat?' and I said, 'cantaloupe,' so he left the office around noon to get the cantaloupe and didn't come back until four," one woman said.

"'Sis,'" he said when he got back, "'We'll eat this tomorrow.' That's just the way he is," she continued. "He sees someone he knows everywhere he goes and talks to them."

In October 2013, just upstairs from the office Hatfield occupies in the Mingo County courthouse, Circuit Court Judge Michael Thornsbury was forced to resign after pleading guilty to a federal felony.

Seven months later, Family Court Judge Miki Thompson was sworn in as Thornsbury's replacement after receiving the appointment from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

This left a vacancy on the 2014 general election ballot for family court judge.

Big Jim, acting as chairman of the Mingo County Ballot Commission, met with other members of the commission in August to consider candidates for the vacancy. After some deliberation, they decided to appoint Jonathan "Duke" Jewell to be the Democratic candidate for the judgeship, and began taking the necessary steps to get him on the ballot.

They contacted the chairman of the Mingo County Democratic party's executive committee, who formalized the decision in a letter that was then forwarded to the West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant.

Shortly thereafter, Jewell paid the filing fee and filled out the necessary candidacy forms for the office of Mingo County family court judge.

But after preparing the ballot and sending the forms to the printer, Big Jim received a call from the printer's office, informing him that Jewell's name was to be taken off of the ballot. Big Jim responded by telling the printer he had no authority to remove any name from the ballot.

Then, on Aug. 29, 2014, Tennant faxed an order to Big Jim, directing that the Mingo County Ballot Commission "remove from the 2014 general election ballot any and all reference to an election to fill an unexpired term of judge of the Eighth family Circuit Court."

Big Jim, however, refused to budge. As far as he's concerned, the secretary of state's demand is a clear violation of West Virginia Code 3-5-19[7](b), which gives the Democratic and Republican Executive Committees the opportunity to appoint candidates.

Big Jim thinks that the voters of his beloved Mingo County are equal to the voters of Kanawha County and Putnam County, both of whom elected judges by ballot in the recent past.

"I don't see where Mingo County is any different than Kanawha County," he says.

Hatfield says he tried to call the secretary of state, but that she hasn't responded to his calls.

"I think her fingers must be too tired to pick up the phone," he says in jest.

When asked why he has chosen to fight the secretary of state over the issue, Big Jim responds philosophically, saying that he's been fighting battles "since I've been here"

"... but I've got big shoulders and I'll continue to fight to do what's right," he adds.

In the end, he says, it comes down to a matter of character.

"You know, I've always tried to be honest all my life. I'm going to be honest until the day I die. I have never taken anything that didn't belong to me and I'm not going to start at age 75," he says.

Of course, Big Jim allows that he may get "beat down," but if he does, "I will just take it and smile and go on," he says.

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