West Virginia is not a wealthy state. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, our median household income is $43,385, one of the lowest in the country. School teachers start at just above $30,000, while many state workers try to survive on near poverty wages.
West Virginians are particularly sensitive to how their hard-earned taxpayer dollars are spent, which is why a report this week by WCHS TV on state Supreme Court spending on office remodeling and furnishings has struck a nerve.
Reporter Kennie Bass found that court renovations were initially projected in 2009 to cost $900,000, but with changes and additions ended up costing $3.7 million. Okay, prices go up, contractors run into unexpected costs, and upgrades to any part of the State Capitol can be doubly expensive to maintain the historic character of the building.
But Bass’s report turned up several eye-popping expenditures: A sectional sofa in Chief Justice Allen Loughry’s office with a price tag of $32,000 and $1,700 for throw pillows; a specially designed wooden map of the state built into the floor of Loughry’s office for $7,500.
Bass reported that renovations to Justice Robin Davis’s office cost over half a million dollars. Most of the furniture is hers, but the taxpayers did shell out $8,000 for an office chair (she told Bass she chose the special chair because of arthritis in her spine) and $28,000 for two Edward Fields floor rugs.
Justice Margaret Workman has a sofa in her office that cost almost $9,000. Renovations to Justice Menis Ketchum’s office cost $194,000, including $6,600 for renovations of his secretary’s desk. Taxpayers paid $130,654 to upgrade Justice Beth Walker’s chambers even though they were renovated during the previous term of Justice Brent Benjamin, at a cost of $264,000.
Justice Loughry blames former court administrator Steve Canterbury, who Loughry fired, for the excessive spending. Canterbury says he was just following the directives of Loughry and others on the court. Regardless, the result was too much taxpayer money spent.
The spending went unchecked because by law the State Supreme Court, unlike the other two branches of government, has no oversight of its budget. Article VI, Section 51, Subsection A(5) says the Legislature may change the state budget by increasing or decreasing any time, “Provided that no item relating to the judiciary shall be decreased.”
(This fiscal year’s General Revenue budget for the Judiciary is $142 million.)
So the Judiciary is on its own… no checks and balances of how it spends the people’s money. It would take voters amending the state’s Constitution to change that.
Ideally the Judiciary would be insulated from the political whims of the Legislature. Imagine lawmakers or the Governor, angry over a controversial decision by the court, punishing Justices by slashing their budget. Having that independence is a luxury the court has enjoyed.
However, like trendy rugs, inlaid floors and $32,000 couches, that’s a luxury the state can no longer afford.