The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals continues to deepen its defensive crouch as the impeachment investigation moves forward. The latest evidence of the Court’s forestalling came Friday when it attempted to block the media from accompanying members of the House Judiciary Committee on a tour of Court offices.

(Read Brad McElhinny’s story here.)

The Judiciary Committee wants to inspect the Court’s facilities to get a better understanding of what is at the root of the investigation—the profligate spending by justices on office renovations and furnishings, and the allegation that suspended Justice Allen Loughry lied about his role in the expensive upgrades.

The Court rationalized its decision to shut out the media by arguing that the committee would not be in session during the tour and therefore would not be subject to the state’s open meeting law. The Court then went even farther when it said the delegates would not be permitted to take pictures or video during the tour.

All this followed a warning letter from the Court to the committee after one day of testimony, accusing the delegates of conducting a “fishing expedition.”  These are clear examples that the Court fails to understand that the Legislature has the constitutional authority to conduct the impeachment proceedings.

The House Judiciary Committee is making the rules, not the Supreme Court.

Fortunately, the committee pushed back against the Court on Friday, voting unanimously to postpone the scheduled tour that day until the committee members could be accompanied by the media.  “The entire reason we’re here is because of the Supreme Court,” said Delegate Shawn Fluharty (D-Ohio) in making the motion. “Why are we going to let them decide what we’re going to do?”

The committee’s action followed strenuous objections by media outlets and press organizations over the Supreme Court’s policy to close the tour. West Virginia Broadcasters Association Executive Director Michele Crist wrote to the Court, “I know you have been overwhelmed with pushback from this decision, but there is still time to use a press pool which is laid out in the Court rules. This would allow these very important public proceedings to continue with the air of transparency they started with.”

As we have said before, the integrity of the Court as a critical state institution is at stake. What’s required to restore that integrity is more transparency, not less. Every time the Court makes a decision like this it adds to the deepening suspicion that it has something to hide, further undermining its credibility.

The Judiciary Committee members are conducting a thorough and open investigation, as they are constitutionally empowered to do. Additionally, the media are performing a vital role by informing the public. The Court’s restriction may be directed at the press, but it’s really an unwarranted obstacle to West Virginia citizens who have every right to follow the proceedings wherever they lead.

 

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