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Justice Workman warrants same result as Walker

October 5, 2018

Justice Beth Walker answers a question at her impeachment trial Monday.

The West Virginia State Senate did the right thing Tuesday when it decided Beth Walker’s financial indiscretions were not sufficient to remove her from the office she had been duly elected to only two years ago.

In a couple of weeks, the Senate needs to do the right thing and make the same decision regarding Margaret Workman.

Walker and Workman are justices on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. This past summer, the House of Delegates voted to impeach all four of the court’s justices. Former Justice Menis Ketchum was spared only because he had already resigned after pleading guilty to charges in federal court.

The House of Delegates impeaches, but impeachment itself does not remove a person from elected office. That role falls to the Senate sitting in its role as a Court of Impeachment, with the House acting as prosecutor.

Tuesday’s vote was 32-1. One senator was not at the Capitol and did not participate in the vote.

Workman’s alleged offense was the least egregious among the four. She was impeached after revelations that the court had spent more than $1 million redecorating the justices’ individual offices in the Capitol. Former Justice Robin Davis, who resigned immediately after the House approved articles of impeachment against her, spent $503,000. Justice Alan Loughry, who was suspended after being charged in federal court for offenses related to his actions in office, spent $367,000. Walker spent $131,000 and Workman $113,000.

In her Senate trial, Workman acknowledged the Supreme Court’s need for better fiscal controls. Even without that acknowledgement, is $113,000 enough to warrant removing a person from office and overturning a decision made by voters? Is $131,000? The answer to both is no.

If Walker’s trial accomplished anything, it established that members of the Senate thought members of the House went too far in impeaching Walker.

“I believe Justice Walker made significant errors in judgment, which she has willingly and publicly acknowledged, and she has expressed a desire to help rebuild the public’s trust of that institution,” Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said in a statement released after the Senate vote.

The same should be true for Workman. The only reason to go on with Davis’ trial is to prevent her from holding elected office in West Virginia ever again, if senators think her spending justifies such a drastic measure. Ketchum is gone, and Loughry probably will be.

The danger for the Senate in Workman’s trial is the appearance of partisanship if the Senate removes Workman from office. The Senate and the House are controlled by Republicans. Workman was elected as a Democrat. Walker ran in the new nonpartisan format for the Supreme Court, but she had previously run as a Republican. Davis and Ketchum are Democrats. Loughry is a Republican.

Next month, West Virginia voters will have the opportunity to vote on a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would help prevent a recurrence of the Supreme Court’s spending. The amendment would give the Legislature more control over the court’s budget. At present, the Supreme Court sets and controls its own budget. Opponents of the proposed amendment say that would infringe on the courts’ independence. Supporters say it would bring accountability to the court, some of whose members have expressed surprise that they should be accountable to anyone.

The Senate returns for Workman’s trial on Oct. 15. Walker’s trial took two days. If senators do the right thing, Workman’s trial will be that short or perhaps shorter. The court needs continuity. It doesn’t need what appears to be an effort to sweep the court of all members and to start all over with an all-new cast.

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