Last year’s drama surrounding the impeachment of West Virginia’s Supreme Court seems to have come to its final chapter. The United States Supreme Court announced that it will not hear a challenge to the decision that halted the impeachment proceedings on separation-of-powers grounds.
West Virginia’s Supreme Court has been in the news this year for all the wrong reasons, but that did not prevent the state’s Judicial Compensation Commission from recommending a salary increase for all levels of the judiciary. The increase — of more than 18% for most judges — was driven heavily by comparisons to other states. West Virginia currently ranks 53rd among states and territories for judicial compensation.
The West Virginia legislature has been busy introducing new bills that would affect the state courts. One bill would add magistrate judges to the court system and give all state magistrates a salary increase. Another bill would require that the state supreme court hear all appeals as of right.
Neither of these ideas is new — the magistrate bill was introduced without success in previous years, and the state supreme court already hears all appeals by court rule. But the bills are still significant. The magistrate bill acknowledges the continued resource needs of the court system in a state with a growing population. And the appeals bill, while merely codifying an existing practice, represents a carefully considered tradeoff between imposing burdens on the supreme court and the cost of creating an intermediate appellate court. At minimum, these bills are a sign that the legislature is thinking meaningfully about the needs of the court system after years of chaos within the judicial branch.
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.
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.
Earlier this week, members of the West Virginia Supreme Court voted to support a state constitutional amendment that would confer greater legislative oversight of the court’s budget. The decision comes in the wake of a series of spending scandals that rocked the court and led to the impeachment trials of four of its members.
Amendment 2 would allow the legislature to reduce the Court’s budget by as much as 15 percent in a given year. It will go to the voters in November.
The amendment has been publicly supported by Justice Beth Walker, who was publicly reprimanded in lieu of impeachment earlier this month, and Chief Justice Margaret Workman, whose own impeachment trial was blocked this week by a specially seated Supreme Court on separation-of-powers grounds. The public support is a smart legitimacy-restoring move for both Walker and Workman, who have been accused of facilitating abuse the Court’s finances.
The West Virginia Senate has set trial dates for the state’s four impeached supreme court justices. Beth Walker’s trial will take place on October 1, followed by Margaret Workman on October 15, Robin Davis on October 29, and Allen Loughry on November 12.
Last week, the Senate rejected several motions to reduce the number of trials. One motion would have removed the articles of impeachment against Davis on the grounds that she is retired. It was rejected, and sensibly so, given that Davis’s resignation after the impeachment vote was taken was a transparent electoral ploy. A closer call, in my estimation, was a resolution to simply censure Justices Workman and Walker, whose charges are considerably less worrisome than those of Loughry. The senate, however, rejected that resolution as out of order.
From the National Constitution Center, an update on events occurring over the last couple of weeks:
In the late-night hours of August 13, West Virginia’s Republican-controlled House of Delegates passed articles of impeachment against all four sitting Justices, accusing them of maladministration, corruption, incompetence, neglect of duty, and certain high crimes. (Justice Menis Ketchum had previously resigned after being charged with wire fraud for personal use of a state vehicle and fuel card. He recently pled guilty to those charges.)
On Saturday, August 25, Gov. Jim Justice named Republicans Tim Armstead and Rep. Evan Jenkins to fill the seats vacated by Justice Robin Davis and Ketchum, both elected as Democrats. Davis had retired after the impeachment charges were approved.
Impeachment trials are set to begin in the state senate on September 11. A two-thirds senate majority is needed to convict. If any justices are convicted, Gov. Justice will appoint replacements that will serve until 2020. Armstead and Jenkins will serve until November 2018, when they will have to run in a special election to attempt to keep their seats.
This is going to get very messy, very soon.
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.