CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia is charting new history, and not the kind the state would choose.
The House Judiciary Committee will begin its consideration of whether to impeach Justice Allen Loughry and potentially other members of the state Supreme Court. One potential domino fell Wednesday when Justice Menis Ketchum announced his retirement.
It’s a momentous and important undertaking meant to restore the public’s trust in the leaders of the court system. It’s also almost uncharted territory.
HOPPY KERCHEVAL: WV Supreme Court teeters amid controversy
The last time impeachment was considered it was 1989 in the case of state Treasurer A. James Manchin, who was on the hook for losing nearly $300 million in state funds to bad investment. Manchin resigned prior to his trial in the state Senate.
The full impeachment process has unfolded only once in the state’s history. That was in 1875.
That year, Treasurer John Burdette was accused of using his office for private gain by taking money from banks that stored state funds. He was, indeed, impeached.
HOPPY KERCHEVAL: A brief history of impeachment in West Virginia
The state Constitution lays out the grounds for impeachment but only in the broadest terms: “Any officer of the state may be impeached for maladministration, corruption, incompetency, gross immorality, neglect of duty, or any high crime or misdemeanor.”
What those terms mean, precisely, will be up to the House of Delegates as the body that presents articles of impeachment and then the state Senate, which acts as a jury.
“You’re judging another branch of government of duly elected officials. That in itself says you need to rise above the politics. You need to take it as seriously as it is,” said Marc Harman, a former delegate who played a key role in Manchin’s impeachment. “It’s probably the most serious thing those 100 house members will ever take.”
West Virginia has reached this point after months of controversy involving the Supreme Court.
It all started last September with news reports about lavish renovations of justices’ chambers: the $32,000 couch and $7,500 wooden inlaid floor in Justice Allen Loughry’s office, a $500,000 office renovation and $28,000 rugs in Justice Robin Davis’s office, and a $130,000 upgrade of Justice Beth Walker’s chambers.
Loughry denied guiding his own renovations and matters got worse.
Controversy then erupted over Loughry’s possession at his home of an antique desk associated with famed architect Cass Gilbert from when the state Capitol was first built. He took it home in 2012 while he was still a law clerk.
Then another couch added fuel to the fire. Loughry was accused of taking home a leather couch that had belonged to Justice Joseph Albright.
Those allegations kicked off a series of investigations by the Legislative Auditor.
The first audit concluded Loughry and Ketchum drove state vehicles for personal use without properly claiming the perk as a taxable fringe benefit. The second examined use of state vehicles by other justices and additional employees of the court.
The third, released last month, concluded that the court system built up a budget surplus of $29 million and then quickly spent down the money to a few hundred thousand dollars. A big question was whether justices did that on purpose to evade budgetary scrutiny by the Legislature.
All those scandals came to a head this summer when Loughry was first charged by the state Judicial Investigations Commission and then by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. In each case, Loughry was accused not only of misusing state resources but, worse, lying about the acts to investigators.
He has been suspended from the Supreme Court. And Ketchum announced Thursday his intention to retire, effective at the end of this month.
The House of Delegates voted June 26 to move ahead with impeachment proceedings. There’s plenty for delegates to weigh.
“How can you look into one justice on those issues and not look into all of them simultaneously?” Harman asked. “Was this a collective decision? Was this a discussion held that ‘We’ve got this $20 million in the bank and the Legislature is going to take over our budget?’ In my mind, I don’t see how they can proceed on just one justice at a time on those issues.
Plans indeed call for the Judiciary Committee to go from topic to topic, rather than focusing on one justice at a time.
“We’re going to take it thematically,” Delegate Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, the vice chairman of the Judiciary Committee said Wednesday on MetroNews’ “Talkline.” “We’re going to go witness by witness so as not to expect witnesses to appear before the committee multiple times.”
— MetroNews (@WVMetroNews) July 11, 2018
That will probably mean beginning with the Legislative Auditor’s reports and findings by that staff. The committee has also subpoenaed material from the Judicial Investigations Commission but it was still being organized. And the committee has asked for material from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, but it’s unclear if that will be available.
The leading Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, Barbara Fleischauer of Monongalia County, said lawmakers have received much of the material already.
“I think it’s pretty overwhelming,” she told MetroNews this week. “We can see this very clearly about Justice Loughry,” she said.
She added, “I do not approve of people lying or using their offices for personal gain. If anyone has done that, we should deal with it. But it’s less clear with the other justices.”
Democrats have been pushing to complete the process by Aug. 14, which would ensure any vacancies could be on the November general election ballot. Ketchum’s resignation ensures that will be the case for at least one vacancy. Dealing quickly with Loughry could assure another.
The House Judiciary Committee has plans to gather Thursday through Saturday. Initial plans call for continuing that pattern for a few weeks until there is a resolution.
The hearings will be in the House Chamber, which will assure space, grandeur and, with luck, seriousness. The public may watch streaming of the hearings at WVMetroNews.com
Harman is rooting for a restoration of public trust.
“The Legislature had no control over what these folks did. And it is a black eye on the state. We are talking about potentially impeaching one or more supreme court justices,” he said. “To every degree possible, rise above the politics. Follow the evidence, let the evidence speak for itself. Let how you handle this define you, not what has happened.”