CHARLESTON — Over the course of a long and contentious Monday, the House of Delegates approved articles of impeachment against four justices of the state Supreme Court. Debate continued after midnight as state lawmakers weighed more allegations.
Delegates voted to impeach Justice Allen Loughry — who faces 23 federal charges —and Justice Robin Davis on several articles, including their overspending on office renovations.
Loughry, Davis and Margaret Workman were all named in impeachment articles claiming they skirted state law to pay senior status circuit judges more than they were entitled to be paid during fill-in stints.
Shortly before midnight, Justice Beth Walker was included with her other three colleagues on impeachment articles claiming lack of oversight.
“This is a sad day. There’s no cause for anyone to celebrate. But it is our duty. I think the public demands it,” said House Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer.
Taking note of the momentous occasion, Shott added, “We’re basically plowing new ground. Justices have never been impeached before.”
The state Constitution gives delegates the power of impeachment, but only a trial in the Senate would actually remove justices from office.
The only justice who wasn’t under consideration for impeachment was Menis Ketchum, spared because he submitted his resignation the day before proceedings began.
The rest of the justices were accused of crossing the line on a variety of items. West Virginia’s Constitution allows for any officer of the state to be impeached for maladministration, corruption, incompetency, gross immorality, neglect of duty, or any high crime or misdemeanor.
Impeachment is so rare that delegates have had to work through some of those definitions and how the accusations against the justices apply.
Delegate Chad Lovejoy, D-Cabell, suggested some of the articles went past the Legislature’s authority. “I’ve settled on a line I learned a long time ago, and that’s lying, cheating and stealing,” he said.
Lovejoy contended what the Legislature actions are unprecedented and might violate the separation of powers clause of the Constitution.
“When we go in and eliminate four of them based on inappropriate spending, make no mistake we are eliminating a separate branch of government,” he said.
The areas of greatest agreement Monday were accusations that Loughry used his office for personal gain. He was accused of taking home an antique “Cass Gilbert” desk, of having state computers at his home for personal use and of driving state vehicles for his personal travel.
Delegates withdrew a separate article about Loughry’s use of state funds to frame personal items for his office.
Each of the justices was also accused of overspending on office renovations: $500,278.23 for Davis, $363,013.43 for Loughry, $130,654.55 for Walker and $111,035.19 for Workman.
Articles that targeted Walker and Workman for expensive renovations on their offices did not go forward.
Those articles brought division among the delegates. Democrats questioned where the line resides on such spending. They said allegations of wasting taxpayer dollars could be aimed at a variety of government expenditures.
“We’re going down a bad road, folks,” said Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Hardy. “We’re going to have to start impeaching board of public works members to be consistent.”
In the cases of Loughry and Davis, Republicans said their constituents were outraged and have demanded the court be held responsible.
But in the instances of Walker and Workman – who had less expensive renovation costs – enough Republicans were troubled about where to draw the line that they joined Democrats in defeating the articles.
The impeachment article involving Walker was voted down 51-44.
Once delegates made it clear they couldn’t support that article, Chairman Shott moved to withdraw the article about Justice Workman’s office spending. The motion passed, 56-39.
More division was clear over several articles contending the justices had signed off on skirting the law on payment of senior status circuit judges. The practice was meant to find a way to pay retired judges who reached a cap on what they were allowed to be paid as they filled in on the bench.
“The court circumvented a law, which we passed, that allowed individuals to be paid more than they were entitled to receive,” Shott said. “Is the test of whether you should violate a law whether you’ve got a good reason?”
Democrats argued that such judges are necessary to keep the court system running.
Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, argued against the article, calling its application ambiguous.
“I do not think this is clearly illegal,” Fleischauer said. “I disagree that this is a valid article of impeachment. I think it’s confusing and I don’t think we should be impeaching people over something that’s confusing.”
Each of the articles dealing with the senior status judge payments eventually passed.
The West Virginia Chamber of Commerce issued a statement Monday saying the impeachment of Workman, Davis and Walker would go too far.
“Many members of the West Virginia Chamber have expressed their serious concerns that the allegations contained in the Articles of Impeachment against Justices Davis, Workman and Walker appear to be subjective,” Chamber of Commerce President Steve Roberts wrote.
“The impeachment of an elected official must be considered only as a last resort, and only upon meeting the highest Constitutional standards.
The West Virginia AFL-CIO sent out a memo in agreement:
“While Labor and the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce don’t often agree, today we do on the issue of House impeachment proceedings and we would like to add our voice to theirs. We agree that the impeachment process for Justices’ Davis, Workman and Walker is not the right avenue to proceed and doing so has the potential to set an unwelcome precedent in our state.”
The articles will be weighed by state Senators during a trial to determine if the justices should be removed from office. Doing so would require a two-thirds majority vote.
One significant issue is that the Constitution says the chief justice — or another judge designated by the court — would preside over the trial. Last week, Chief Justice Workman named Cabell Circuit Judge Paul Farrell to fill in on the court during Loughry’s suspension. The order she signed designates Farrell as the justice who would preside over a Senate trial if necessary.
Walker objected to Farrell’s ascension, while Davis agreed with Workman.
If the Senate votes to remove justices from office, Gov. Jim Justice would fill the vacancies through appointment with the guidance of the state Judicial Vacancies Commission.