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A Coup or a Couch? What’s Behind the Impeachment of West Virginia’s Supreme Court

Posted August 14, 2018 3:48 p.m. EDT

Counsel Robert Akers, center, looks over paperwork with Delegate John Shott, right, a Republican, before the House of Delegates convened for an impeachment hearing at the State Capitol in Charleston, W.Va., Aug. 13, 2018. Members voted to impeach state Supreme Court justices accused in a spending scandal on Monday. (Maddie McGarvey/The New York Times)

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The whole episode began with office renovations and a $32,000 dark blue suede sectional sofa, accented with more than $1,000 worth of throw pillows. Now West Virginia’s entire Supreme Court is being impeached.

Late Monday night, after a long day of discussion and at times testy debate, the West Virginia House of Delegates passed 11 articles of impeachment against four sitting justices of the Supreme Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court.

Advocates for the impeachment, mostly Republicans, who hold a large majority in the House, said the scale of the justices’ misconduct called for an extraordinary response, a process the legislature has resorted to only once over the past hundred years.

“They think they’re better than everybody in this state that works a blue collar job!” thundered Republican Delegate Michael Folk, tapping into the populism that runs deep in the state. “The average citizen in the state of West Virginia is appalled.”

No one has defended the lavish spending. But the prospect of a mass judicial impeachment struck opponents as a partisan power grab by Republicans who control the governor’s office and both houses of the state legislature. On the Supreme Court bench, three of the five justices were elected as Democrats. Any temporary replacements would be named by the Republican governor, Jim Justice.

A number of Democrats saw it, in the phrase of one lawmaker, as nothing less than “a coup.” And in a rare moment of public agreement, the state chapter of the AFL-CIO and the state chamber of commerce called the impeachments an unwelcome precedent.

Hours after the impeachment proceedings, Justice Robin Davis, who sat on the court for 21 years, announced at a brief news conference in the Supreme Court chamber that she had retired to free up her seat so that someone could run for it in November.

“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,” she read in a prepared statement. “The will of the people of West Virginia is being denied.”

The fifth justice resigned before the proceedings began.

Last fall, investigative TV news reports revealed lavish office renovation spending by Supreme Court Chief Justice Allen Loughry. The profligate spending seemed particularly abhorrent in a state as cash-strapped as West Virginia. More reports followed, on the spending by Loughry but also by other justices, adding up to hundreds of thousand dollars on marble, stainless steel cabinets, and a $7,500 wooden inlaid medallion depicting West Virginia.

The scandal ballooned with more revelations beyond just interior design choices, leading to a 23-count federal indictment against Loughry, who has been suspended but has not resigned.

Loughry, a Republican, was found to have put state employees to work moving furniture from the Supreme Court building to his home and to have taken his state car to events where he signed copies of his book: “Don’t Buy Another Vote, I Won’t Pay for a Landslide: The Sordid And Continuing History of Political Corruption in West Virginia.” He faces trial in October.

In July, one of the other four justices, Menis Ketchum, resigned from the seat before entering a federal guilty plea, to having used a state-owned car to drive to golf outings. Ketchum was a Democrat, and his seat will be filled after an election in November.

Most of the impeachment articles involve Loughry but there were multiple articles concerning the three other sitting justices, including charges on thornier legal matters such as paying retired circuit judges higher wages than they are allowed for filling in on the bench.

But most of the outrage was centered on office renovations. Roughly half a million dollars was spent renovating the office of Davis, though there is disagreement on how much of that was for necessary work, like plumbing, and how much on less essential features, like track lighting. Two other justices, Beth Walker and Margaret Workman, spent more than $100,000 each, but this was considerably less than the others and their charges were voted down. Still, the court as a whole was impeached, on a narrow vote, for not putting policies in place to rein in the spending of each other.

In speeches on the floor on Monday, lawmakers talked of how incomprehensible such spending was in comparison to their own frugal tastes, how angry their constituents were at the haughtiness of the court and how the spending of public money in such staggering amounts constituted an impeachable offense in itself.

Any appointees hand-picked by the governor would sit on the bench until a new election, a period that could last up to a year and a half.

“They’re going after everyone because it’s the balance of the court,” said Delegate Mike Pushkin, a Democrat on the House Judiciary committee. In February, he was one of the first lawmakers to push for an investigation into Loughry, for the personal use of state property as well as for allegedly covering it up. At the time, Pushkin’s resolution was brushed aside as “ridiculous” by the Senate president.

But the extravagant spending became fodder for a court-wide impeachment — as Pushkin contends — after Loughry was suspended and control of the court appeared up for grabs. Nonetheless, Pushkin added, lavish spending by itself is not actually illegal.

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 plenty 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. This is what dominated talk in the state Capitol on Monday: the extent to which extravagant spending was unconstitutional or simply appalling, and whether something could be appalling enough to justify annulling the results of a statewide election — perhaps even four statewide elections.

“I find many of these purchases offensive,” said Delegate Chad Lovejoy, a Democrat, who pointed out that the cost of the infamous sofa was far greater than the per capita income in his district. But, he continued, the legislature had recently spent nearly a million dollars renovating bathrooms in the capitol.

A mass judicial impeachment, over lavish but legally permissible spending, he said, 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.

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

“Is it not the opinion of the legal community that the Supreme Court, the justices that sit on the highest court in this state, should be beyond reproach, like Caesar’s wife?” said Delegate Patrick McGeehan, a Republican, who referred to several ancient Romans in his remarks. “Is that not the standard that I’ve heard over and over again?”

The discussion went late into the night, becoming especially heated at one point when it appeared the House might fully spare Walker, who ran as a nonpartisan but is a clear favorite of Republicans. Democrats and some conservatives were indignant, and a motion that would have shielded Walker failed to pass.

Then, at 15 minutes past midnight, the House of Delegates voted to impeach the whole Supreme court.