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House Judiciary Committee votes to impeach all four remaining W.Va. Supreme Court justices

CHARLESTON — Making West Virginia political history, the House Judiciary Committee  voted in favor of impeachment articles for all four remaining members of the state Supreme Court.

Only former Justice Menis Ketchum was spared because he announced his resignation the day before impeachment proceedings were set to begin.

“It’s really a sad day for the state, and nobody should be celebrating,” House Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer, said Tuesday at the end of a nine-hour day of impeachment consideration.

“I think the overwhelming evidence we saw was there was an atmosphere of entitlement and cavalier disregard for the expenditure of taxpayer money. It’s unfortunate the entire court seems to be infected by that atmosphere. We felt like we had no choice but to recommend the impeachment for each justice.”

Impeachment of any kind is a rarity. The last West Virginia political figure to be impeached was Treasurer A. James Manchin, who resigned before being tried in the Senate in 1989.

Now the full House of Delegates will convene at 10 a.m. Monday to weigh impeachment of justices Allen Loughry, Margaret Workman, Robin Davis and Beth Walker.

Any articles the full House approves would then go to the state Senate for trial.

If all four remaining justices are removed from office, Gov. Jim Justice would appoint new members of the court, likely to serve until 2020.

Justice commented during a separate press conference about the state budget: “It’s a black eye that we don’t need. I’m sure we’ll work our way through it.”

The House Judiciary Committee  approved 14 impeachment articles, rejecting two others.

One of the articles was a catch-all wrapping up almost every controversy the Supreme Court has faced over the past year.

That article accuses all four remaining justices of failing to establish policies about remodeling state offices, travel budgets, computers for home use and framing of personal items.

And the justices each face allegations that they spent thousands too much on the renovations of their own offices: $500,278.23 for Justice Davis, $363,013.43 for Justice Loughry, $130,654.55 for Justice Walker and $111,035.19 for Justice Workman.

Several more articles alleged the justices  signed off on a policy to circumvent state law by paying senior status judges as contractors, allowing them to make more than they were  allowed.

Some articles focused specifically on actions by  Loughry, who separately faces 23 federal charges.

The impeachment articles reflect Loughry’s decision to move an antique Cass Gilbert desk to his  home, his home use of state computer equipment, his private use of state vehicles, his use of public funds to frame personal mementos and his false statements while under oath to the House Finance Committee.

One rejected article reflected  Walker’s use of outside counsel to write an opinion for the court, a $10,000 expense. Another was an allegation that  Workman had hiring preferences on the court for workers on her campaign.

Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee raised objections about some of the articles.

But beyond that, they raised concerns about the big picture.

“If we’re talking about overturning the entire court, that’s monumental,” said Delegate Barbara Fleischauer of Monongalia County, the ranking Democrat on the committee.

“It’s a huge thing to say the Legislature feels we can cause a change in the court that will result in all four members — one being elected with the resignation of Justice Ketchum and four new members being chosen by the governor instead of by the people. I just can’t go that far.”

Delegate Amy Summers, R-Taylor, said the actions of the justices left her with no choice.

“I do think the evidence is there, and I think my constituents have reached out to me with enough outrage — especially once the pictures came out and they saw the lavish spending and all the struggles we’ve been through the last few years as a state, trying to fund corrections, trying to give the teachers a pay raise,” Summers said.

“All these things we’ve been struggling to do, and they see  that — that is a slap in their face, and it shows very poor judgment.”

The Supreme Court on Monday night sent a letter saying an advisory opinion about working lunches by the state Ethics Commission does not apply to the judicial branch.

The court reportedly spent $42,314.76 over five years on working lunches, a subject of earlier impeachment testimony.

Shott said the letter from the Supreme Court provided an example of the court’s collective mindset.

“It’s absolutely incredible to me, and just basically reinforces the perception that the court feels they’re not a co-equal branch, they’re a superior branch and not subject to the same rules the rest of us are,” Shott said. “I was just flabbergasted to get that.”

The next historic step in West Virginia’s political drama will be Monday.

Shott said he believes the evidence is generally solid going into the next phases.

“We believe the evidence is pretty compelling on most of the charges. There are some areas that we probably need to fortify somewhat, and we’ll be doing some work on the issues that are raised today. But for the most part, these are overwhelmingly obvious.”

 Brad McElhinny  is the statewide correspondent for WVMetroNews.com. Follow him @BradMcElhinny or contact him at brad.mcelhinny@wvmetronews.com.