In the wake of several scandals that rocked its supreme court and led to a number of impeachments, West Virginia has introduced a series of reforms to improve public confidence in its judiciary. This week, Chief Justice Beth Walker updated the state legislature on the court’s internal reforms, including new travel and financial policies to combat the budgetary abuse that was endemic in the court until just a few months ago.
Separately, the state’s Judicial Investigation Commission has asked candidates in judicial elections to call on third parties to stop running false or misleading ads against their opponents, and to disavow any false or misleading statements that are made. While this opinion will be difficult to enforce–especially in a tightly-contested race–it would be refreshing for candidates to commit to it. There is little benefit to winning a judicial election, only to see public confidence plummet in the judiciary because the candidates are being routinely trashed on TV.
Two Dallas-area judges have been disciplined by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct for endorsing each other’s bid for reelection this past fall.
The commission issued two public warnings to both Kim Cooks, judge of the 255th District Court, which handles family law, and Andrea Martin, judge of the 304th District Court, which handles juvenile law.
According to their warnings, during their 2018 campaigns for re-election, Cooks and Martin produced and distributed a campaign mailer that featured their names, titles and likenesses, urging voters to vote for each of them for their respective judicial races. The mailer included statements such as “Keep this talented team working for our families and for our children.”
Cooks and Martin also produced two campaign videos and posted them on social media in which they ask voters to support both of them in their reelection efforts. In one of the videos, the judges state: “We are your Dallas County Judges, your people’s judges. We are the community judges. And we need your help.”
Cooks and Martin also told the commission that they jointly hosted a fundraising event, at which separate tables were set up for each campaign. They also stated that their individual campaigns shared equally in the costs associated with the mailer, the videos and the fundraising event.
The judges pled innocent ignorance, stating that campaign behavior was not covered at new judges school. But that’s a poor excuse, and hardly demonstrates the sensible judgment that one expects of an impartial jurist.
Last June, former New Hampshire Superior Court judge Patricia Coffey sued the state, seeking an annual pension of nearly $90,000 and pension back pay of nearly $400,000, in addition to ongoing health insurance. Coffey resigned her position in 2008 after she was suspended for helping her husband create a false trust to hide assets. She was also found to have violated the state’s canons of judicial ethics by receiving a salary from a private company while on the state judicial payroll.
Coffey moved to California, but continued to make payments into the state pension system, and demanded full benefits once she was age-eligible in 2015. The state pension board denied her application.
Coffey is seeking a jury trial, but last week the state moved to dismiss the case altogether. That motion is pending before the federal court.
On Tuesday, federal prosecutors announced that West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Menis Ketchum had pled guilty to one count of wire fraud, stemming from his personal use of a state-issued automobile and credit card. Ketchum is the second state supreme court justice to face federal charges; former Chief Justice Allen Loughry was previously charged with 23 counts of fraud and related misconduct.
The guilty plea comes as the state legislature continues to investigate the possibility of impeachment for one or more members of the state’s highest court.
The West Virginia House Judiciary Committee continued its impeachment inquiry into the state supreme court this week, with particular focus on indicted former chief justice Allen Loughry. Thursday morning, the supreme court’s former court administrator is expected to testify.
Meanwhile, the state’s judicial ethics commission cleared three other justices in an investigation stemming from the court’s practice of ordering in working lunches on the taxpayer dime. There is no question that the practice was pervasive, but the state Judicial Investigation Commission (JIC) also concluded that it was “longstanding” and preceded the terms of the current justices. The JIC also concluded that the working lunches allowed the court to run more efficiently. The justices were admonished, however, that such practices should be reduced to writing to the policy is clear.
Last Thursday, the West Virginia House Judiciary Committee began hearings that may lead to the impeachment of one or more of the state’s supreme court justices. The hearings were precipitated by accusations of rampant overspending and other ethical violations by Chief Justice Allen Loughry, who was indicted on 22 counts of fraud and other malfeasance by a federal grand jury.
Thursday’s hearings focused on a now-infamous $32,000 couch, part of an alleged $360,000 in taxpayer money that Loughry spent on his office between 2013 and his suspension last year. The supreme court’s deputy director of security testified that the couch was moved from the courthouse to Loughry’s home, and that after Loughry was suspended from his duties he contacted the security office to help him move the couch (and a historic Cass Gilbert desk) again–this time to a warehouse, in order to avoid ongoing media scrutiny. Other court officials testified about Loughry’s improper use of state vehicles and the extraordinary remodeling of Loughry’s chambers.
Legislators also questioned the court’s public information officer, who had previously told a reporter that “the Court has a longstanding practice of providing Justices an opportunity to establish a home office,” including the use of court furniture. The PIO explained that she was told about the alleged practice by Loughry, and deferred to him in light of his position and experience. In fact, no such policy exists.
Members of the House Judiciary Committee planned their own tour of the supreme court offices last Friday, but cancelled after the Court refused to allow media and other observers to join the legislators.
There will be more to come in this ugly situation. Stay tuned.
In the wake of a high-profile scandal in which prosecutors in a major corruption case exchanged private text messages with a judge about its planned strategy, Israel’s Supreme Court has announced new rules to prevent further one-sided communications.
Under the new rules all contact between the judge and the investigative and prosecuting bodies will only be made during court hearings. Aside from in the courtroom, no direct requests are to be made of judges, but rather are to be filled through the court administration.
This makes a great deal of sense, and gives the court system a chance to rebuild whatever public legitimacy it has lost from the scandal.