The implosion of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals continues today as the state House of Delegates meets to debate the 14 Articles of Impeachment presented by the Republican majority. The Court has been under fire for several months, with two justices facing federal criminal charges, one of whom has resigned from the bench. The Articles of Impeachment introduced today are against every remaining member of the court, including the three justices not facing criminal charges, implicating among other things hundreds of thousands of dollars in renovation to their individual offices, and the circumvention of state law in payment for temporarily-sitting judges around the state.
The so-called “senior status” judges, retired judges who fill in for circuit judges around the state when necessary due to illness or conflict, have an annual legislative salary cap of $126,000. According to the Articles, some senior-status judges reached that cap. Rather than appoint some other senior-status judge, the justices allowed the judges to be “contractors”, receiving 1099 forms rather than W-2s to circumvent the salary cap.
The impeachment articles also included allegations of “unnecessary and lavish” waste of tax payer money relating to the office renovations. The chambers of Justice Robin Davis underwent a $500,000 remodel; Justices Margaret Workman’s and Beth Walker’s over $100,000 each. In addition, Justice Walker allegedly paid outside counsel $10,000 to write an opinion for her, despite the availability of clerks and counsel at the Court. That outside counsel is now employed at the court. Justice Workman was also accused of unnecessarily hiring into an I.T. position an individual who worked on her campaign.
The House must now vote on the articles of impeachment. A simple majority is required in order to send the articles to the Senate side.
Like any other political quagmire, there is partisan antagonism at play here. House minority Democrats expressed dismay when their Republican counterparts showed up today with the pre-drafted articles of impeachment, a document apparently prepared in secret and after hours without Democrat input. Without comment on the legitimacy of the allegations, some Dems see the move as an attempt by the republican majority to take over the Court, based on the laws governing how unexpectedly vacant court seats are filled. Of the three justices currently on the bench, only one is a Republican. Beginning in 2016, West Virginia switched from partisan to non-partisan judicial elections.)
Under state law, the governor appoints judges to fill vacancies on the Supreme Court. If the unexpired term is for more than two years, the seat is up for grabs at the next general election. All four remaining justices (including the one facing federal indictment but refusing to resign) have unexpired terms of more than two years. However, if a vacancy occurs less than 84 days before the general election, then the appointee completes the term. The 84th day before the next general election is August 14th — chances of completing impeachment proceedings against three justices in one week are slim to none. That would mean that of the five seats, only the one vacated by Justice Menis Ketchum last week will be at stake in November’s election, with the other four seats subject to gubernatorial appointment and carrying over for the next two years.
Partisanship aside, the current condition of the state’s high court is an embarrassment that cannot stand. In an ideal situation, the three justices not currently suspended from the practice of law and still eligible for judgeship would face off in a special election against a field of candidates, and let the public decide whether they should continue to have the privilege of their positions. But that’s not how it is designed.
For now, West Virginians have to depend on the legislature to determine the fate of our Supreme Court — and hope they do so with integrity and minimal consideration of partisan interests.