In the wake of scandals that have forced every member of West Virginia’s Supreme Court to either resign or face impeachment, three justices are due in impeachment proceedings today in a move that critics say is politically motivated.
The West Virginia House of Delegates voted last month to impeach all four of its sitting Supreme Court justices, an unprecedented move prompted by the growing scandal surrounding the judges’ spending habits. A fifth justice, threatened with impeachment, resigned earlier this year.
“There are some legislators who are pretty outraged about the courts spending and so they’re primed, if you will, to hold them fully accountable,” said Bob Bastress, a leading scholar on West Virginia Constitutional Law and Professor at the University of West Virginia.
West Virginia Supreme Court justices are elected to 12-year terms. The justices were impeached after the August deadline to hold a special election, which allows the Republican Governor, Jim Justice, to fill the positions of both Republican and Democrat justices.
Governor Justice has already filled two interim seats, giving conservatives a court majority.
In June, state lawmakers opened an investigation into potential spending and ethical violations of every member of the court. In the early hours of August 14, based on the findings of the committee, the West Virginia House of Delegates voted to impeach four justices, Margaret Workman, Allen Loughry, Elizabeth Walker, and Robin Davis, on charges related to lavish spending and the waste of state funds. Justice Davis announced her immediate retirement on August 14. She is accused of spending approximately half a million dollars renovating her office.
A fifth member, Justice Menis Ketchum, announced his resignation on July 11 before the House considered articles of impeachment against him. He later pled guilty to one felony count of wire fraud for improper use of a state fuel credit card.
Now, Justices Margaret Workman, Allen Loughry, and Elizabeth Walker are set to face impeachment proceedings in the state Senate. Workman is facing accusations that include overpaying judges’ salaries and falsifying accounts. Walker is facing accusations that include wasting state funds. Loughry is facing a federal indictment on charges that include the misuse of state vehicles, and lying to FBI agents.
This may be among the worst crises to confront the court, but it’s not the first.
In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court forced then-Justice Brent Benjamin to recuse himself after coal businessman Don Blankenship spent $3 million to push for Benjamin’s election while a case involving Blankenship’s company was pending. The year before, Justice Elliot “Spike” Maynard was pressured into recusing himself from the same case when photographs surfaced showing him on vacation with Blankenship on the French Riviera. Maynard was later voted out of office.
Trouble resurfaced in 2014, when Justice Davis faced scrutiny after an ABC News report revealed that a lawyer with a major case before her raised thousands of dollars for her re-election campaign in 2012. The same lawyer had reportedly bought a Learjet from Davis’ husband in 2011 for more than $1 million. Davis never disclosed the airplane deal, telling ABC News that she was under no obligation because it involved her husband, and not her.
But ethics experts have questioned that assertion.
“This does not look good for the rule of law,” James Sample, an expert on judicial ethics and Professor at Hofstra University Law School, said in the ABC report. “A million-dollar sale of an airplane while litigation involving the lawyer who purchases the airplane is pending before the court? Absolutely no question. It’s proper to disclose, and it is improper to not disclose.”
References to the airplane deal resurfaced in recent weeks as state lawmakers were debating whether or not to pass articles of impeachment against Davis for allegedly over-spending on office renovations. Articles of impeachment were passed against her, but her resignation means she is no longer subject to an impeachment trial in the Senate, as she willingly removed herself from the bench.
In her retirement announcement on August 14, Davis accused the majority party of the legislature -- Republicans -- of using the impeachment process for political gain.
“They have erased the lines of separation between the branches of government. In fact, the majority party in the legislature is positioning to impose their own party preferences,” she wrote.
A legislative battle has waged since the beginning of the impeachment proceedings, with Democrats agreeing with Davis’s assertion that the attempts to re-cast the court are being driven by politics.
“The power of choosing our next Supreme Court Justice should belong to the people of West Virginia, not politicians and lobbyists in a back room,” wrote Democratic Minority Leader Timothy Miley, in an August statement about Justice Loughry.
Impeachment proceedings against the judges in the West Virginia Senate are set to begin today. If the remaining judges are removed in the upcoming Senate session, their open seats will be filled by West Virginia’s Republican Governor Jim Justice.
Sample told ABC News that political wrangling is not what the state needs.
“The court is desperately in need of not liberals or conservatives,” Sample said. “It’s desperately in need of individuals with high integrity.”
ABC News has reached out to Justices Walker and Workman for comment.