Senate sets rules for W.Va. Supreme Court impeachment trials

CHARLESTON — The state Senate has agreed on the rules for impeachment trials of the remaining members of the West Virginia Supreme Court, debating over who should have authority over the order of the trials.

Separate jury trials are anticipated for West Virginia’s remaining three justices, Margaret Workman, Beth Walker and suspended Allen Loughry.

“These rules are fair,” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan. “They’re designed to provide justice.”

Members of the House of Delegates voted in favor of 11 impeachment articles last week. Also impeached was Justice Robin Davis, who announced her resignation the following day. Justice Menis Ketchum resigned the day before the impeachment process began.

The justices were accused of crossing the line on a variety of items, including failure to hold each other accountable, signing off on skirting the law on payment of senior status judges and spending lavishly on office renovations.

The Senate’s role is to serve as a jury to determine whether to now remove the remaining justices from their jobs.

It takes a two-thirds vote — specified in the rules as 23 senators — to sustain articles of impeachment and to remove a justice from office.

Over about two hours early Monday afternoon, senators considered 34 rules. They were the result of work by staff attorneys, taking into consideration the precedent of earlier impeachment processes.

As specified in the state Constitution, a designee of the Supreme Court is to preside over the trials. Because the entire court has either resign or is under impeachment, that has become a sticky wicket.

Chief Justice Margaret Workman has said Cabell Circuit Judge Paul Farrell, now serving on the Supreme Court in place of the suspended Loughry, will preside over the impeachment trial.

One of the rules gives the presiding judge the authority to determine the order of the trials.

Woelfel offered an amendment saying the trial should proceed in the order of the articles. For example, the first article deals with Loughry. So he would go first, facing each of the articles that name him.Senator Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, questioned that rule.

“We should determine ourselves the order of respondents,” Woelfel said, citing the Senate’s authority in the Constitution’s separation of powers.

“There’s a time limit on this process and if we go by the order ratified by the House, justice will be served.”

Judiciary Chairman Trump said the Senate and the presiding officer will work toward a schedule that makes sense.

The rules give senators the ability to overrule the presiding judge with a simple majority.

“Are we stripping away flexibility in the scheduling of these processes?” Trump asked.

Woelfel’s amendment was defeated after a vigorous debate.

The Senate adjourned until it is summoned back by the president. There’s a lot to do in the meantime.

Within five days of being served with the articles of impeachment, the justices and their counsel may request discovery of evidence, including a witness list.

Within 10 days of the requests, the managers who are bringing the impeachment case from the House of Delegates are to respond.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael has described a possible start to the first impeachment trial in mid-September, although no date was specified during Monday’s discussions. Loughry has a federal trial currently set for Oct. 2.

When the trial begins, senators are to serve as jurors, essentially listening, observing and preparing to render judgment. Senators may take notes.

Any senator who wants to question a witness is supposed to write down the question and present it to the presiding judge who will present it to the witness without indicating who asked.

After closing arguments, the Court may enter into a Conference of Senators for deliberation.

When they come back out, they would vote on whether to sustain one or more of the articles of impeachment. Such a vote would require a two-thirds majority.

Then a separate vote would be taken on whether to remove the justice from office.

“If two thirds of the Senators elected vote to disqualify,” according to the rules, “a judgment of disqualification to hold any office of honor, trust, or profit under the state shall be pronounced and entered upon the Journal of the Court of Impeachment.”

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