Jim Butler: House took its duties seriously
Article 4 section 9 of the West Virginia Constitution assigns the responsibility of impeachment to the West Virginia House of Delegates. It states: “Any officer of the State may be impeached for maladministration, corruption, incompetency, gross immorality, neglect of duty, or any high crime or misdemeanor. The House of Delegates shall have the sole power of impeachment.”
On Monday, Aug. 13, and through the early morning hours of Tuesday, Aug. 14t, I joined a majority of my colleagues in the House of Delegates to impeach four of five members of the West Virginia Supreme Court. The justices impeached now include Justices Loughry, Davis, Workman, and Walker. The fifth member of the Court was Justice Ketchum, who resigned before the impeachment process began.
The fact that the four justices were impeached by the House does not remove them from office; the state Senate will now hold individual trials to determine removal. Criminal charges are pending against some justices and others may still be initiated; these are separate from the impeachment process.
In recent developments, once she learned that she had been impeached, Justice Davis announced her retirement. This means that the Senate will have three impeachments to consider; those are Loughry, Walker and Workman. The Senate trial process could take weeks, or months, and I have not heard exactly what their plans are.
The West Virginia Supreme Court has been in recess this summer. Justice Loughry, while technically still in office, was suspended earlier this year, so he cannot rule on any cases. Justices Ketchum and Davis have resigned or retired, so they are not on the court. We are left with Justice Workman, Justice Walker and Judge Farrell, who is a circuit court judge from Cabell County appointed to fill the temporary vacancy created when Loughry was suspended. The vacancies created by the resignations of Davis and Ketchum will be filled in a special election concurrent with this year’s general election in November. The governor will appoint members to the court to serve until January when the term for the newly elected member’s term starts. There will be special elections for any future vacancies; the term for each newly elected member will be for the remainder of the term vacated by a particular justice.
The reasons for the impeachments were a combination of maladministration, neglect of duty and actual violations of state law. Maladministration resulting from the elitist culture and undeniable poor judgment demonstrated by each of the justices as they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lavish renovations and furnishings in their personal offices, misuse of state vehicles, improper use of purchasing cards, and misuse of state property. Neglect of duty is related to failure to develop and implement policies to prevent misuse and abuse. The violation of state law, so far, was related to paying judges more than the $126,000 per year legal limit, and a number of violations mostly committed as they were trying to cover up for the maladministration.
There were 15 separate articles of impeachment, with more than one article affecting each member of the Supreme Court. It is not practical to list them all here, but I voted to impeach on all articles except two, which were rejected or withdrawn for lack of evidence. The articles I voted for impeached all remaining members, regardless of political affiliation. Nearly all Democrats in the House voted to overlook the excessive spending of every member of the Supreme Court, even that of Justice Loughry who was suspended from the court and charged with more than 20 violations of law. Nearly all Republicans voted to impeach all members of the Supreme Court for the same excessive spending, neglect of duty and violation of law. There was near unanimous bipartisan support however to impeach Justice Loughry for misuse of state property and resources.
As stated above, the fact that justices have been impeached by the House of Delegates does not automatically remove them from office. The state Senate will hold trials to determine if they will be removed. It requires two-thirds of the members elected to the Senate to remove a justice. That number is 23 of 34 state senators.
An important factor that contributed to the excessive spending and mismanagement is the fact that the budget of the Supreme Court has not been subject to legislative oversight for decades. The legislature simply had to allocate to the Supreme Court whatever its members said they needed. During this year’s legislative session I voted for, and we passed, a resolution to allow for a constitutional amendment which would place the Supreme Court Budget under the oversight of the Legislature; the same as every other department in the state. In the general election in November, voters will have the opportunity to provide much more oversight by voting for this amendment.
This impeachment and the actions that led up to it were a very sad development in our state. On the brighter side is the realization that we have a legislature that has taken its constitutional responsibility seriously and began the work to change the culture in the West Virginia Supreme Court from a culture of entitlement to a culture of service.
Delegate Jim Butler, a Republican, represents the 14th District in Mason County.