CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Chief Justice Allen Loughry denounced “isolated, expensive furniture purchases” in a hearing before the House Finance Committee, while also defending the judicial branch’s separation-of-powers authority to determine its own spending priorities.
Legislators, in response to a series of stories about Supreme Court spending on office renovations, have been considering an amendment that would give the legislative branch more oversight over judicial spending.
“Do I enjoy these stories and the things that have occurred? No,” Loughry said as part of his closing remarks.
“But I’m not going to stand before you and say it’s improper to ask these questions or that it’s improper to be outraged by such spending.”
Normally, this would have been a run-of-the-mill budget session. The Finance Committee would listen to the chief justice describe spending priorities, but the decisions would be firmly in the hands of the judiciary. This year, the court system proposes spending $139 million, a thin slice of state government’s overall spending.
But criticism has continued after recent stories about the $32,000 couch in Loughry’s office, the $7,500 wooden West Virginia medallion inlaid into Loughry’s floor, the $28,194 rugs in Justice Robin Davis’s office and the $130,654 for extensive renovations of Justice Beth Walker’s chambers, even though those chambers were upgraded just seven years ago.
“There is a lot of public pressure on this body to do something. We want to make sure there are safeguards so this doesn’t happen again,” said Delegate Eric Householder, R-Berkeley, and vice chairman for Finance.
Legislative scrutiny has taken several forms. The Legislative Auditor announced this past Sunday that the Supreme Court is newly set for an audit. Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, arose Thursday in the House floor session and said the Judiciary Committee should look into impeaching Loughry.
And multiple legislators have expressed interest in pushing for a state constitutional amendment that would give the Legislature greater oversight power over the court system.
In fact, such a proposed amendment was introduced on Day 1 by Senators Greg Boso and Sue Cline. And Delegate Michael Folk introduced a House version on Thursday.
Following today’s budget meeting, House Majority Leader Daryl Cowles said he would prefer an amendment.
“Generally, in theory, I’m for bringing their budget underneath the legislative purview — but that’s not without the need to examine the concerns he brought up,” said Cowles, R-Morgan.
But Cowles suggested he might be open to other approaches too.
For instance, during the hearing, he asked Loughry whether he would be receptive to having court system purchases be under the oversight of state purchasing requirements like other agencies.
And Delegate Ron Walters, R-Kanawha, asked about acceptance of working with the Department of Administration on judiciary purchasing.
In both instances, Loughry said he would be open minded.
Loughry cautioned against an amendment that would give the Legislature authority over all judicial spending, though — even while acknowledging that some states and the federal government work that way.
“This branch has the ultimate check because it’s always looming to have that constitutional amendment,” Loughry said.
He warned that in instances of disagreement between the Legislature and the Supreme Court — say, if justices decided to overrule legislation — the court should have protection against retaliation.
He also suggested the court system budget overseen by legislators could balloon as constituents and court administrators ask for more and more.
“I would just ask that you take a moment and consider the big picture,” Loughry said. “Our constitutional structure is carefully thought out.”
Loughry made the case that the court system has been, broadly, careful about its spending. He also said the court system has been working to put safeguards in place, such as multiple eyes on invoices.
“There’s no denying there was wasteful spending. It appears some safeguards have failed. In the context of transparency, what is the court’s plan to prevent the misappropriation of taxpayer dollars in the future?” Householder asked.
Delegate Mick Bates, D-Raleigh, wanted to know as a practical matter where lawmakers, the public or the press could see accounts of judicial spending. “Where do you keep the books?” Bates asked.
Loughry responded that a new financial portal will be rolling out through the state Auditor’s Office. “And we’ve asked for them to feature us on the front page.”
Delegate Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, chimed in to agree that he would like for the public to be able to quickly, easily see how the court system is spending its money.
“I share your concern of control of one branch by another. I also share your concerns about transparency,” Rowe said.
As hour-and-a-half budget meeting ended, House Finance Chairman Eric Nelson remarked to Loughry that he appreciates the court system’s attempts to control its overall spending — “but this body is calling out for transparency.”
Speaking afterward to reporters in the hallway, Nelson reiterated that position.
“We need more transparency, and we will get it,” said Nelson, R-Kanawha. “You heard that from the various questions. One after another was the transparency of seeing where dollars are going.”