WV Supreme Court justices under severe reproach

In the short space of a week, four Supreme Court justices were impeached after being charged with excessive spending. The justices first came under fire last year, when it was reported that they had spent more than $3 million to renovate their offices.

On the morning of Monday, Aug. 13, the House introduced House Resolution 202, regarding the impeachment of four of the five state Supreme Court justices. The House adopted 11 of 14 Articles of Impeachment – rejecting one and withdrawing two articles. Of the adopted articles, suspended Justice Allen Loughry was named in seven, Justice Robin Davis in four, Chief Justice Margaret Workman in three, and Justice Beth Walker in one – which included articles that individually focused on particular justices and some that combined them. Former Justice Menis Ketchum, who resigned in July, was not part of impeachment proceedings. Ketchum faces a charge under a federal information indictment.

How did this come to pass?  According to the New York Times, the scandal ballooned beyond interior design choices, adding up to hundreds of thousands of dollars on marble, stainless steel cabinets, a $7,500 wood inlaid medallion depicting West Virginia, and a $31,924 sofa. Roughly half a million dollars alone was spent renovating the office of Justice Davis. Advocates for the impeachment, mostly House Republicans in the majority, said the scale of the justices’ misconduct called for extraordinary disciplinary measures – impeachment – a process the legislature has resorted to only once in over 100 years.

The prospect of a mass judicial impeachment struck opponents as a partisan power grab by Republicans since three of the five justices were elected as Democrats. Any temporary replacements would be named by Republican Governor Jim Justice. In the phrase of one Democratic lawmaker, this is nothing less than “a coup.”

A furious justice Davis said Tuesday she had resigned from her seat rather than face removal after the House vote on Monday. In a news conference Tuesday, Davis said she wanted to allow the public to decide her replacement, instead of leaving it up to the state’s Republican governor to appoint.

“When a legislative body attempts to dismantle a separate branch of government, the immediate effects as well as the precedent it sets for the future can only be deemed disastrous,” Davis read in a prepared statement. “The will of the people of West Virginia is being denied.”

The governor has since declared a formal proclamation calling for a special election for voters to fill Davis’ unexpired term, and announced that candidate filing to fill Davis’ position was to begin on Wednesday, Aug. 15. The governor will name temporary replacements to fill the three remaining justices’ seats.

The House proceedings concluded that Workman, Loughry, Walker and Davis have all been impeached for failing to carry out their administrative duties. Loughry, Workman and Davis also were impeached for paying retired senior status judges more than the law allowed. Davis and Loughry were impeached for the use of state money to renovate their offices, but Workman and Walker, who spent less on renovations than their colleagues, were cleared of impeachment charges on that score. Loughry was also impeached for using state vehicles and computers for private use. All told, 11 articles of impeachment were adopted.

West Virginia justices typically serve 12-year terms. They can be impeached for “maladministration, corruption, incompetency, gross immorality, neglect of duty, or any high crime or misdemeanor,” according to West Virginia’s constitution, requiring a conviction by at least two-third of the state Senate members. The chief justice is supposed to preside over impeachment hearings, but since Workman held that position and will be on trial, Cabell County Circuit Court Judge Paul T. Farrell was sworn in as acting chief justice last week.

Justice Ketchum’s seat will be filled after the election in November. On Thursday, the Judicial Vacancy Advisory Commission (JVAC) released names of applicants seeking to fill the vacancy on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals created by the resignation and retirement of Justice Menis Ketchum. Interviews will be conducted by the JVAC on Aug. 23.

The following individuals have applied as of press time: Timothy P. Armstead, Charleston; Robert H. Carlton, Williamson; Gregory B. Chiartas, Charleston; Robert J. Frank, Lewisburg; Evan Jenkins, Huntington; Arthur Wayne King, Clay; D.C. Offutt Jr., Barboursville; William Schwartz, Charleston; and Martin P. Sheehan, Wheeling.

Unusually among state constitutions, West Virginia’s constitution allows the judiciary to set and control its own budget. Judicial salaries are set by the legislature, and there are a number of mandated costs, but the purchase of a $32,000 sofa, as a strict legal matter, is at the discretion of the court. There is an amendment on the ballot this November that would put the judiciary’s budget under legislative oversight.

“I find many of these purchases offensive,” said Delegate Chad Lovejoy, a Democrat. But, the legislature, he continued, had recently spent nearly a million dollars renovating bathrooms in the capitol. A mass judicial impeachment, over lavish but legally permissible spending, was unwarranted and possibly even a violation of the separation of powers. “It’s unprecedented in the United States that one branch of the government goes in and lops off another,” he said, per the Times report.

Republican lawmakers argued in response that at some point bad judgment, even if legal, can be so bad that it becomes “maladministration,” and thus grounds for impeachment.

Responding to questions he has received from local community members, Senator Stephen Baldwin weighed in on the trial process in the Senate. He said, “Senators are now given the solemn duty of acting as jurors in the impeachment trial. For the past year, I’ve been critical of the court for their spending habits, especially when important programs have gone unfunded. That being said, I will hear all the evidence, take the process seriously, and then make a decision accordingly about how to vote.

“Three separate trials will be held for each remaining justice. If someone resigns, then they will not face an impeachment trial. The senate acts as jury in the impeachment trial, and two-thirds of the senate must vote for impeachment for it to occur. The first trial is expected to begin in mid-September. It took the House a day to recommend impeachment, but these trials unfortunately may take months to complete. That will take all of us senators away from our regular jobs, not to mention our families. Each justice will have their own attorneys, witnesses, cross-examinations, and arguments to make. I also expect lobbyists from all sides to become highly involved advocating for their clients. All to say that this circus is going to get worse before it gets better. The Senate must follow the process as laid out in the constitution to settle this matter justly and begin the healing process for West Virginia.”

more recommended stories