The West Virginia House of Delegates Judiciary Committee was just one day into its hearings on whether to impeach one or more members of the state Supreme Court of Appeals when it received a heavy-handed letter from the Court’s interim Administrative Director Barbara Allen.

Allen first acknowledged the right of the committee to conduct the inquiry, but added in the same sentence, “We have significant concerns both as to the scope of these impeachment proceedings and the procedures governing them.”  Allen then accused the committee of conducting “a full-fledged fishing expedition.”

This is rich coming from a Court that has embarrassed itself and the state with its obscene and wasteful spending on luxury office furnishings and personal use of state vehicles. Justice Allen Loughry has already been indicted by a federal grand jury and is on unpaid suspension, and Justice Menis Ketchum has announced his resignation/retirement at the end of the month after revelations that he used a state car for personal travel.

Committee Chairman John Shott (R-Mercer) was measured when asked by reporters about the Supreme Court’s chastisement.

Perry Bennett/West Virginia Legislative Photography

Delegates Roger Hanshaw and John Shott look out over the House Judiciary Committee during impeachment hearings.

“The only response I have to that is each of the justices took an oath to uphold the Constitution,” Shott said. “The Constitution provides a process for impeachment, and that process was triggered by the resolution of the House of Delegates.  We’re following up on our constitutional duty to do so.  Because the justices uphold the Constitution, I expect they will honor their duty and provide whatever cooperation we need.”

You have to give Shott credit for biting his tongue here. The Court’s letter is an outrageous attempt to interfere with the committee’s process and yet another example of the arrogance of the state’s court of last resort. It’s tantamount to jury tampering to try to try prevent the committee from conducting a thorough investigation.

Imagine if the roles were reversed. What if the Legislature, under the dark of night, passed an absurd law allowing for opulent office renovations and personal use of state vehicles, and then lied about it?  What if that law was challenged and legal arguments ended up before the state Supreme Court?

How do you think the Court would react if it received a threatening letter from legislative leaders lecturing them about their responsibilities and accusing the Court of a “fishing expedition?”  No doubt the Court would remind the Legislature of the separation of powers and proceed with its responsibilities.

Some remaining members of the Court may be wishing the committee would focus Loughry, who is the low hanging fruit here, and ignore the remaining justices, but that’s not the charge of the committee. The House of Delegates did not undertake this investigation lightly.  It approved a resolution 89-0 that gives the committee the authority “to investigate, or cause to be investigated, any allegations or charges related to the maladministration, corruption, incompetency, gross immorality, or high crimes or misdemeanors committed by any [emphasis added] Justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.”

It is evident from the first two days of hearings that the committee intends to be thorough.  That’s not a fishing expedition; it’s a serious exercise of a constitutional responsibility that is a necessary measure toward restoring the public’s confidence in the state’s highest court.

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