The late esteemed Associated Press correspondent George Esper, when preparing to write a big story, said he first paused and asked himself, “What does it all mean?” It was Esper’s way of stepping back and trying to provide perspective for complicated and consequential events.
I suspect West Virginians who are either directly involved in the impeachment proceedings or simply following the events with interest are asking themselves the same question. How do you put into perspective the events of recent weeks?
Suspended State Supreme Court Justice Allen Loughry faces a 23-count federal indictment on charges of misusing state vehicles and a state gas card, taking a historic desk and a state computer to his house for personal use and lying about exorbitant spending on office furnishings.
Menis Ketchum resigned his state Supreme Court seat and has agreed to plead guilty to a federal charge of using a state vehicle and state paid gasoline for personal use.
And now this week the House Judiciary Committee approved 14 articles of impeachment against Loughry and the other three remaining Justices—Chief Justice Margaret Workman, Robin Davis and Beth Walker. They’re accused of wasteful spending on expensive office remodeling and furnishings. Workman, Loughry and Davis are also accused of wrongfully approving the overpayment of senior status judges.
The four remaining court members could all be removed from office if they are impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate, creating four vacancies that would be filled by gubernatorial appointment.
Some have called the events “historic,” and that is accurate. Nothing like this has ever happened in West Virginia, and perhaps not even in the country.
House Judiciary Committee ranking Democrat Barbara Fleischauer said, “If we’re talking about overturning the entire court, that’s monumental.” That is defined as “of historical or enduring significance,” and that applies.
The word sad has also been used frequently. House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Shott said Monday after a nine-hour hearing on the articles of impeachment, “It’s really a sad day for the state, and nobody should be celebrating.”
I agree with all of those descriptions, and would add one more: Inevitable. Former state Court administrator Steve Canterbury, who was fired by Loughry, was asked during his impeachment testimony if he thinks that the Justices believe they are above the law. His answer—“No, they believe they say what the law is.”
Our state Supreme Court of Appeals has operated without the kind of checks and balances that are basic to good government and successful private sector workplaces. The absence of oversight contributed to an atmosphere where smart, professional people made bad decisions.
With all deference to Esper, we cannot accurately say now “what it all means” because the story still has a long way to go. And even after impeachment and trial, there is an upcoming vote on the Constitutional Amendment to give the Legislature the power to review the Court’s budget, the election to fill one vacancy on the court, a possible special election or a vote in 2020 to fill any additional vacancies.
However, we do know that we are in the midst of an extraordinary event that we have to see through to the end and, as a state, try to emerge better for it on the other side.