CHARLESTON — Legislators at the heart of impeachment proceedings voted to hold off on a tour of the state Supreme Court until West Virginia media representatives are allowed to accompany them.
The tour of the Supreme Court, where expensive renovations kicked off a series of controversies, had been scheduled for Friday.
Court officials had said media would not be allowed on the tour. The Supreme Court put out a statement titled, “House Judiciary Committee tour not open to media, public.”
West Virginia news outlets — represented by the West Virginia Broadcasters Association and the West Virginia Press Association — had argued that they have a vital role in reporting all aspects of the historic impeachment proceedings, including delegates’ visit to the court.
When it came time for the tour on Friday, Delegate Shawn Fluharty expressed concern that the tour might violate aspects of the state’s open meetings law. He made a motion to hold off on the tour until the Judiciary Committee could work with the Supreme Court to allow media access.
“The entire reason why we’re here is because of the Supreme Court. Why are we going to let them decide what we’re going to do?” Fluharty, D-Ohio, said.
Fluharty said it’s important that reporters provide an independent view of what delegates do at the Supreme Court.
“We’re there as representatives of the people; we were elected to do so. And you’re also there to represent the people. You represent a check on us. You’re essentially the fourth branch. We want the press there to give a nonpartisan analysis.”
He was concerned that the tour may constitute a quorum and deliberative proceedings.
“We’re going to use the information gathered at the Supreme Court, which should be open to the media. If not, it’s an open meetings violation,” Fluharty said.
The Judiciary Committee debated the wording and intent of Fluharty’s motion for about 45 minutes.
All but two delegates voted to hold off on the tour.
One, Charlotte Lane, R-Kanawha, said she was annoyed that the motion to hold off on the tour came from Democrats who have been pushing to complete impeachment proceedings swiftly.
Another, Delegate Tom Fast, R-Fayette, offered similar reasoning. Fast said the committee had multiple attorneys review the circumstances of the tour. He was confident it would not violate open meetings laws.
“I believe this was a prudent thing to do. And timeliness — we’re trying to move this thing on, and this meeting had been scheduled for several days and if there was going to be an issue of delaying it, I think it should have been brought up much sooner than right before we were ready to go,” Fast said.
“So it disrupts the schedule, and I thought it had been legally and fairly explored.”
Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer, said the delay probably worked out for the best. He voted in favor of it.
“If the people that requested it weren’t concerned about the urgency of it, I certainly wasn’t,” Shott said. “I think it’s a good result. I never felt like we should be rushing these proceedings, and if we can do it in a more transparent way I think we should.”
Delegate Riley Moore, R-Jefferson, also agreed with the delay to try to gain media access.
“What we’d like to see is greater transparency and access to the court and what’s been going on there,” Moore said. “I think having media there is certainly a part of that, so I felt it was incumbent upon us to delay until there was some final disposition allowing media access to the tour we’re going to undertake.”
Media outlets asked the Supreme Court on Thursday if access would be allowed.
Even if not all media could be accommodated, organizations proposed a pool treatment where a small group could provide coverage for all.
The Supreme Court’s memo issued Friday morning made reference to the tour being an off-site inspection rather than a meeting — thus exempt from state code’s open meeting requirements:
“The House Judiciary Committee will complete a tour of Supreme Court offices today in two separate groups, and therefore the Committee will not be in session at that time. Attendance at the tour is optional for members of the Committee.”
It went on to say, “The Committee members will be instructed that the Supreme Court will not allow photography or video during the tour, and that if afterward they believe pictures or videos are necessary, Chairman John Shott and the Committee’s photographer will contact Interim Court Administrator Barbara Allen.”
Both the West Virginia Press Association and the West Virginia Broadcasters Association objected to the tour being closed to media.
“On behalf of the West Virginia Broadcasters Association, we respectfully request your reconsideration of the decision to bar media from the proceedings at 10:30 this morning,” wrote Michele Crist, director of the broadcasters association.
“I know you have been overwhelmed with pushback from this decision, but there is still time to use a press pool which is laid out in the court rules. This would allow these very important public proceedings to continue with the air of transparency they were started with.”
Don Smith, director of the press association, concurred.
“The West Virginia Press Association and its 73 member newspapers are in agreement and support this request.
“As noted in the request, this impeachment is a matter of significant public interest. Transparency is vital,” Smith said.