Justice Beth Walker has been chosen by her peers to be the next Chief Justice of West Virginia. Walker was cleared of impeachment charges by the West Virginia Senate earlier this month. She will face the important task of restoring public confidence in a court shaken by financial and fraud scandals over the past year.
The West Virginia House of Delegates has voted to impeach four justices of its (five-member) supreme court. Lawmakers were largely unified on the impeachment of Allen Loughry, a Republican whose alleged fraud has led to federal charges, as well as Republican Beth Walker. Democrats in the House expressed opposition to impeaching fellow Democrats Margaret Workman and Robin Davis. In the end, however, all four were impeached.
Davis immediately resigned from the Court, accusing the House of staging a partisan coup. Her resignation was retroactive to Monday, meaning that a special election will be held for her seat this November. Under current law, if the three remaining justices are convicted, their replacements would be appointed by Governor Jim Justice.
In her resignation speech, Davis charged the Republicans in the legislature with conducting a witch hunt, alleging that “What we are witnessing is a disaster for the rule of law, the foundation for our state and, indeed, our own society…. For 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’s claims would be cause for sincere alarm in many states, but her own actions suggest instead that they are wholly disingenuous. Her resignation was explicitly timed to trigger a special election. Under West Virginia law, if a judge leaves the bench more than 84 days before a scheduled election, the voters choose a replacement. If the judge leaves the bench with less time before the next election, however, her replacement is chosen by the governor. Monday, unsurprisingly, was exactly 84 days before the general election.
Davis’s retroactive resignation is nothing more than a transparent political ploy. (She is not alone: House Democrats introduced a bill later in the day that would provide for special elections for all three remaining justices if they are impeached.) While Davis has not been proven guilty of the articles of impeachment, her refusal to even contest the charges and go to trial further undermines what little public confidence must remain in the court.
This is all rather extraordinary — but less so for West Virginia, whose long history of partisan judicial elections, questionable ethical practices, and big money influence is legendary. The state’s House Judiciary Committee Chairman, John Shott, said yesterday that “No one takes joy in this process.” If that sentiment is genuine, perhaps the people of West Virginia and their elected leaders should change the judicial selection system that makes circumstances like this possible.
In any event, the process now moves to the state senate for trial, which will be conducted by the judge standing: freshly appointed interim Justice Paul Farrell. Conviction requires a 2/3 vote of the 34-member chamber. No trial date has been scheduled.
Today, the West Virginia House of Delegates will begin considering articles of impeachment against 80% of its supreme court. Fourteen articles were brought against four justices last week, mostly related to overspending, fraud, and creating a culture of overspending and fraud.
The full articles of impeachment can be found here.
Meanwhile, Judge Paul Farrell was sworn in as a temporary supreme court justice on Friday, replacing Allen Loughry, who has been suspended. (Loughry continues to hold his title and is one of the four justices facing impeachment.) In a strange twist, Chief Justice Margaret Workman (who is also facing impeachment) issued an administrative order appointing Farrell as acting chief justice for impeachment proceedings. In other words, if the House votes to impeach all four justices, a brand new justice with a temporary appointment would be thrust into the unenviable position of presiding over the trial.
Legislative efforts to impeach four Democratic Justices of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court have been roundly criticized by a wide range of observers. This week, Chief Justice Thomas Saylor (a Republican) and state Attorney General Josh Shapiro (a Democrat) added their voices to the chorus.
Shapiro, a Democrat, said impeachment is “a serious and rarely used tool that is reserved for misbehavior in office, rather than opposition to a justice’s legal opinion.”
He went on to point out that the courts have handed down opinions during his time as attorney general that he opposed but he trusts that they were rendered by the courts “on integrity and based on the law.”
Shapiro said, “The independence of the judiciary is at stake and I would urge clear-thinking members of both parties in the state House to reject this effort.”
Scott Bomboy of the National Constitution Center has a very interesting blog post on the history of state judicial impeachment. It’s worth a read.