NEW CUMBERLAND - Hancock County Magistrate Court is easy to miss, sitting, as it does, at the top of the hill in this quiet county seat. But it's the court that the average resident who gets in trouble with the law is most likely to see.
The three magistrates who preside over the court's heavy caseload - Michael W. Powell, Betty J. Bauer and Scott Hicks - will see their four-year terms expire at the end of the year. All three Democrats, with 51 years' experience among them, are seeking re-election on Nov. 6.
The one Republican challenger is Hancock County Sheriff Mike White, who is prohibited by state law from seeking a third term as sheriff. The top three vote-getters among the four candidates will fill the magistrate spots.
White, 57, of Weirton, believes magistrate court is ready for some new blood. "I thought it was time for a change," he said. "I think I have a lot to offer. The experience and training I have makes me a good candidate."
White has been in law enforcement for 39 years, starting out as a New Cumberland police officer. He joined the sheriff's department in 1979 and moved through the ranks, first as chief deputy under Sheriff Jeff Woofter and then as sheriff himself.
"I think I'm a good fit for the job," he said. "I think it has been good preparation. Over my career, I've spent a lot of time in court."
The only statutory requirements to run for county magistrate in West Virginia are a high school diploma, residency in the county and a clean criminal record. Magistrate courts, similar to municipal courts in Ohio, handle mostly misdemeanor cases for the unincorporated parts of the county. Felony cases that start in magistrate court often are bound over to Hancock County Circuit Court.
In 2011, Hancock County Magistrate Court heard 3,731 cases, including 1,593 citations, 63 worthless check notices, 1,135 misdemeanor warrants, 316 felony warrants and 624 civil filings, according to the West Virginia State Auditor's Office.
The court took in $142,701 in fines in 2011, according to the auditor.
One thing White would seek to change, if elected, is the wait time for cases. White believes better scheduling could shorten the amount of time defendants wait before appearing in court.
"I've seen deputies sitting for six or seven hours waiting for cases to be called. ... Scheduling might be tighter, which would save the county money," White said. "If government works more smoothly, then it works more efficiently for the public."
Bauer, 77, of Weirton, has been a magistrate for 22 years and, in that time, has seen an increase in the number of cases involving drunken driving and domestic battery.
People make mistakes, Bauer said, "but if you make the same mistake twice, then shame on you."
Bauer said she enjoys being a magistrate and working with people. "I try to be very honest with people. I think honesty is the best (policy), and people have liked me enough to put me in," she said.
Prior to becoming magistrate, Bauer worked as court clerk for the city of Weirton.
Hicks, 65, of Weirton, is in his 15th year as magistrate and his ninth year as presiding judge for the Northern Panhandle Adult Treatment Court. The latter includes the mental health court, the drug court and the veteran's treatment court, all of which are diversionary programs for qualifying defendants.
"It's all about treatment to help the individual get his life back on track," Hicks said. "We see some successes; we see some failures."
In drug court, Hicks sometimes will impose residential treatment or intensive out-patient treatment in lieu of jail time. "It's not necessarily for drug-related offenses," he said. "If it appears as though the behavior is a consequence of drug usage, they may still qualify for drug court."
Hicks' background in law enforcement includes 26 years with the Weirton Police Department, the last four and a half of which he served as chief. He was appointed magistrate in 1998 to fill the unexpired term of Magistrate Mitch Baltich.
"We've heard over 24,000 criminal cases in 14 years," Hicks said. "The majority of those are DUI (driving under the influence) cases. We've also seen a large increase in heroin-related offenses."
Powell, 66, of Weirton, has served for 14 years as magistrate. Previously, he worked for 22 years in the Weirton Police Department, 19 of those years as a detective.
"I enjoy the position, being in law enforcement for those years," he said. "I enjoy the work and making a difference in the system."
Powell concurred that cases involving drunken driving, domestic violence and drug abuse, especially heroin, are among the most common in magistrate court.
"We have a full plate here," he said.