CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The state Judicial Investigation Commission announced Monday it has closed ethics complaint cases against three Supreme Court Justices and has taken no disciplinary action against them.
The justices are Chief Justice Margaret Workman, along with Robin Davis and Beth Walker.
In related matters, the Supreme Court sent a letter on Monday to House of Delegates Judiciary chair John Shott, R-Mercer, agreeing to allow a joint committee/media tour of justices’ offices as part of its impeachment hearings process, but on dates different from those requested.
The commission, in a press release, said its policy is to not acknowledge the existence of complaints until probable cause has been found to issue a statement of charges or an admonishment.
“We are taking the unusual step of making our findings public in these cases,” said Commission Chairman Ronald Wilson, “because Supreme Court justices are the highest judicial officers in West Virginia. It is important for the public to know that allegations against them have been thoroughly investigated, and they have been cleared of wrongdoing.”
The commission previously investigated allegations against Supreme Court Justice Allen Loughry and filed a 32-count statement of charges against him on June 6.
The commission’s action appears to put the focus of the Judiciary Committee’s impeachment hearings squarely on the suspended Loughry. House spokesman Jared Hunt said Monday afternoon he hadn’t spoken to Shott to confirm that supposition, but noted that the impeachment proceedings are separate from the commission’s work.
The commission was investigating complaints alleging the three justices used state funds to pay for lunches for themselves, their administrative assistants and court security officers while they were discussing cases and administrative matters in conference.
The commission said in letters to the justices that it found the lunches reduced the amount of time attorneys spent in court, reducing legal fees, and allowed visiting judges to return to their circuits in time to do other work the same day.
The working lunches made the court “run more efficiently and effectively on argument docket and administrative conference days,” the letters said. The letters said that the Internal Revenue Service and the West Virginia Ethics Commission consider paid working lunches an acceptable expense because they improve efficiency.
The three justices voluntarily agreed to be interviewed by the commission, the press release said. They also agreed to the release of letters to them informing them of the commission’s conclusions.
The complaints were opened against the Justices by Judicial Disciplinary Counsel earlier this year. This closes all outstanding complaints against them.
The letter to Justice Walker indicated that the lunch practice was longstanding when she joined the Court on Jan. 1, 2017.
The letters to the other Justices note that “Perhaps the only criticism that the JIC can make is that you failed to reduce the policy to writing — with well-established guidelines — for the purchase of the working lunches. By failing to do this, you unnecessarily opened the door to unfair public criticism of an otherwise appropriate method for conducting the business of the court.”
Letters to Chief Justice Workman and Justice Davis indicate, in footnotes, that the Commission also investigated other allegations against them and found that they did not violate the Code of Judicial Conduct.
The other allegations include a Davis stop at a political rally in Parkersburg and a political event at the Raleigh County Armory while on Court business trips; Davis-hosted parties at her homes in Charleston and Jackson, Wyoming; and Workman hired people who worked on her 2008 judicial campaign as “ghost” employees — an employee put on the payroll who does no work.
Regarding the stops, the commission said Davis was traveling on court business and the trips were side events that involved no additional travel or expense. For the dinners, she paid most of the costs and the court’s expenses were “normal costs that would have been paid by the agency for a banquet that would have been held at the hotel or at some other location in the city.”
Regarding Workman’s alleged ghosts, it said, “Following a thorough investigation into this claim, the Judicial Investigation Commission finds there is no probable cause to charge you with a violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct.”
Court office tour
Shott on Monday sent a letter to the court formally requesting that committee members and staff, along with three members of the media, be permitted to tour the justices’ chambers on Friday.
The committee is holding hearings to consider evidence for impeachment charges against four of the justices. It is not considering evidence against Justice Menis Ketchum, who is stepping down.
The court had previously granted a tour but excluded the media, so the committee voted last Friday to delay the tour until media could be included.
Interim court Administrative Director Barbara Allen wrote back and said the three media members are welcome, but Friday isn’t possible. It can accommodate tours on Aug. 1-3, as the committee chooses.
She said the court would like to break the tour into two groups, to limit the number of people crowding into small spaces. For security, no video or photos of interior halls, doors or windows will be allowed.
David Beard/The Dominion Post