CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Legislators started a discussion about oversight of the judicial branch’s budget.
The discussion was prompted by reports of extensive renovation expenses by the state Supreme Court. totaling about $3.7 million. The part of that expense that has caught the public’s attention is a $32,000 couch in the office of Chief Justice Allen Loughry.
Members of the Joint Standing Committee on the Judiciary on Monday morning listened to a presentation by counsel about the history of the budgeting for the judicial branch in West Virginia.
“West Virginia is the only state in the union where the judiciary enjoys the sort of budget autonomy that ours has,” said Brian Casto, counsel for the committee.
“This is one of a couple of ways in which our Legislature and our courts are structured in a unique manner.”
Essentially, the separation of powers in West Virginia has been interpreted to mean the court system provides its budget and the Legislature may increase it but cannot decrease it.
Changing that would likely require the Legislature to pass a resolution, which would need to be voted upon by citizens to amend the state Constitution.
The last time the Legislature considered this issue was through a 2016 resolution sponsored by former Delegate Patrick Lane. That resolution deleted a provision that the court’s budget shall not be decreased.
“That is essentially the only recent attempt that has been made by this body to alter the system by which budgeting is conducted by the court,” Casto said.
Lawmakers took no action today but did ask several questions.
Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, asked if the Legislature could re-allocate items within the judiciary’s budget, as long as the changes wouldn’t lower the budgeted amount overall.
“We could decide where money could be better spent within their budget?” Pushkin asked Casto.
“There is debate over whether that could be done now. That issue has not been litigated,” Casto responded.
Pushkin followed up by asking, “As long as the total is not decreased, it could possibly be reallocated by the Legislature?”
Pushkin specified by asking, for example, if the Legislature could intervene if it felt the state’s drug courts were underfunded compared to their potential for savings once people go through the system.
Delegate Charlotte Lane, R-Kanawha, asked if the Legislature might be able to focus on particular aspects of spending.
“I wholeheartedly support this concept,” Lane said. “Could we pass legislation saying the court can’t do this and can’t do that? Can’t go in and buy $32,000 sofas? Can’t have a storage warehouse outside the state surplus storage? Could we go in and start saying what the Supreme Court cannot do?”
Casto responded, “The question is at what point those would functionally be construed to be an interference with the budgeting power of the court. That’s really where those boundaries would lie.”
Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, asked more about that idea, suggesting it might be easier to change some purchasing requirements rather than aiming for a constitutional amendment through a statewide vote.
“If we wanted to deal with the couch and chair and flooring, is there a simpler way to deal with it as a purchasing issue?” she asked.
Casto agreed that approach would generally be considered simpler than trying to pass a constitutional amendment.
Speaking after today’s meeting, Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan, said the topic of judiciary spending has come up over the years but there seems to be some momentum now.
“There is some interest among members of the Legislature at looking at that,” Trump said.
“There were some bills or resolutions off and on over my 20-plus years around the legislative process. There have been lots of conversations about whether there ought to be a legislative check or oversight on the whole budget.”
Trump said he could not speak for the Speaker of the House or the Senate President, but he suspects each would be interested in pursuing some legislation to address the matter.
“That’s a question they’ve both expressed some willingness to examine in the coming legislative session,” Trump said.