The state Legislature’s first impeachment inquiry in 29 years is underway. The charge to the House Judiciary Committee is to determine whether there is enough evidence to bring articles of impeachment against members of the West Virginia Supreme Court.
The public interest will be served best if the committee and the full House (and ultimately the Senate if impeachment leads to trial) put aside partisanship. The Legislature is a political body, so that won’t be easy.
There has already been one partisan fight. That happened Tuesday when Democrats and Republicans fought over a Democratic proposal to establish a deadline for process. Democrats wanted the work finished by an August 14 deadline so if there is a vacancy on the court it can be filled in the November election. Republicans said they didn’t want to rush the process and the amendment failed 32-37 with 11 members absent.
The indictment of state Supreme Court Justice Allen Loughry on charges of padding his expenses, personal use of a state vehicle, lying to investigators and witness tampering triggered the impeachment proceedings. However, the House Resolution says the Judiciary Committee can investigate “any Justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court of appeals.”
Article 4, Section 9 of the state Constitution says any officer of the State may be impeached for “maladministration, corruption, incompetency, gross immorality, neglect of duty or any high crime or misdemeanor.” But what are the definitions of those charges?
That’s up to the Judiciary Committee to determine, but it’s worth reviewing—and possibly the committee will as well—the guidance provided by John Hatcher, who served as Judiciary Chairman when the House impeached then-Treasurer A. James Manchin in 1989 after the state Consolidated Investment Fund lost $279 million.
Hatcher, who is now a circuit judge in Fayette County, provided some legal definitions for each of the possible charges, and some of those definitions were quite broad. For example, maladministration was defined as “willful misconduct.” Hatcher said corruption could be interpreted as “an act of an official… who wrongfully acts contrary to a public duty and to the rights of others.”
Incompetency was defined as, among other things, “the wasting or misappropriation of public funds by any officer.” Hatcher applied a similar interpretation for neglect of duty. He wrote that could “include the willful waste of public funds.”
Remember, the Court controversy started when it was revealed that the Justices spent lavishly on office furnishings, including a $32,000 couch for Loughry and $500,000 for Justice Robin Davis’s office remodel. Additionally, a Legislative Audit determined Justice Menis Ketchum used a state vehicle for personal business.
Just wasting taxpayer money could be grounds for impeachment under the 1989 standard. However, it will be up to the Judiciary Committee to determine what the standard will be for this investigation and just how far it wants to dig into the Supreme Court controversy.
Chairman John Shott (R-Mercer) indicates he wants to set the bar pretty high. “Until I learn otherwise, it would be my opinion as a member of this committee that we would need solid evidence that would be admissible regardless of the standard of evidence that the Senate applies.”
The committee has already gotten good counsel from Marc Harman, who served in House during Manchin’s impeachment. “What you are about to undertake will not be pleasant, but I hope you will rise to the occasion,” he told committee members Tuesday. “I think you can define us as a state by how you handle it.”
Shott is a serious man and he knows the gravity of this undertaking. What the committee ultimately does—or does not do—will certainly have political implications. However, politics is secondary to the committee’s responsibility to get this right and begin the process of restoring confidence in the state Supreme Court.