The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, the court of last resort in our state, is in tatters, and its condition may get worse before it gets better.
Justice Menis Ketchum has resigned. The announcement came by way of Governor Jim Justice’s office, which issued a news release saying Ketchum had submitted a letter of retirement and resignation effective Friday, July 27.
Ketchum’s resignation came just one day before the House Judiciary Committee was set to begin impeachment proceedings against one or more members of the high court. Justice Allen Loughry has been at the top of the impeachment list, but Ketchum also had exposure.
A legislative audit found Ketchum drove state vehicles for personal use. He initially failed to pay the appropriate taxes on the vehicle use, but later paid the bill. It’s reasonable to question whether that would have risen to the level of impeachment, but Ketchum was evidently worried about going through a revealing and potentially embarrassing impeachment process that could have led to his forced removal from office.
However, Ketchum’s resignation may not put all his troubles behind him. U.S. Attorney Mike Stuart has left open the possibility that his investigation into the Supreme Court’s spending and personal use of state vehicles is ongoing.
It’s up to Governor Justice now to fill that seat. “I have directed my general counsel to provide the necessary documentation to the Judicial Vacancy Commission and other state agencies as may be appropriate to fill this vacancy created by Justice Ketchum’s resignation,” Justice said in a release.
(Read more on the impeachment proceedings from Brad McElhinny.)
Meanwhile, Loughry is hanging on to his job by the narrowest of threads. He is already on suspension without pay and facing a 22-count federal indictment accusing him of fraud, making false statements and tampering with a potential witness.
The charges stem from Loughry’s expensive office furnishings, his use of state vehicles for private purposes and his alleged false statements to investigators and legislators. His case would seem to be low hanging fruit for the impeachment committee.
“We have enough here to say he’s guilty of maladministration, at the very least,” said Judiciary Committee member Delegate Barbara Fleischauer (D-Monongalia).
However, Committee Chairman Delegate John Shott (R-Mercer) does not want to consider impeachment one justice at a time. Instead, he’s expected to have evidence introduced and see where the investigation leads.
Shott will set the bar high for impeachment. He said on Talkline that he understands the gravity of the proceedings and is supremely cautious about taking action that will overturn the results of an election. In addition, Shott said articles of impeachment must be strong enough to get the necessary two-thirds vote in the Senate for removal.
The obscene spending by the Supreme Court on office renovations and furnishings, the indictment of Loughry, the resignation of Ketchum and the first-ever impeachment proceedings against one or more members of the Court add up to make this one of the most tumultuous and controversial periods for the judiciary in the state’s history.
The Judiciary Committee’s impeachment investigation, if done without political posturing or malice, can shine a sanitizing light on this foul mess, and begin the process of restoring integrity to the state’s highest court.