CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia’s remaining Supreme Court justices are all headed for impeachment trial.
Senators batted down a proposed settlement to keep justices Margaret Workman and Beth Walker on the court and rejected a motion to halt the impeachment trial process for Justice Robin Davis, who abruptly retired weeks ago.
West Virginia appears headed for a fall the likes of which it has never seen.
The stage was set during a day of pretrial hearings in the Senate, with Judge Paul Farrell presiding.
The House of Delegates last month passed 11 articles of impeachment dealing with the justices’ administrative and spending decisions.
Senators are now acting as jurors, deciding whether the justices should remain in office.
The pretrial hearing on Tuesday began with House Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer, offering a possible resolution.
Under what Shott described, impeachment articles would be dismissed for justices Walker and Workman, who face the fewest accusations. Instead, they would agree to accept censure and steer the court toward greater responsibility.
The possible deal resulted from discussions by Shott, Delegate Andrew Byrd, D-Kanawha, Walker’s counsel, Workman’s counsel, Senate counsel and the Senate parliamentarian.
Their discussions focused on the deal itself and procedure, but the politics was less clear.
“It’s in all of our interest for the steps to begin to rebuild that confidence. We believe this is a good first step. We urge your adoption of it without any hesitation,” Shott told senators on Tuesday morning.
Senators, who had heard rumors of a deal but not the details, adjourned for several hours. During that time, they discussed it among themselves. Their casual discussions in offices and hallways revealed there was no political consensus.
“If there wasn’t a consensus in the majority, we’re not going to drive that train with the number of members that we have,” Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, said. “It was sort of surprising all the things that did happen.”
So when the proceedings resumed at 2:30, Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio, stood up.
The proposed deal had been presented in the form of a resolution. Ferns called a point of order. He said it required senators to assess guilt or innocence without having heard any evidence.
Ferns later said he made the motion, “given that we had articles of resolution pending and that the proposed resolution presupposed an outcome to the impeachment hearings without having any evidence produced or heard.”
Senators of both parties gathered around President Mitch Carmichael to talk through it. When they reconvened, Carmichael announced his agreement with Ferns. No one, not even Democrats, said anything to disagree.
Afterwards, senators of both parties said there was no political consensus about the deal.
But they also said there was a grain of truth to the procedural motion — the House heard enough evidence to pass the articles and the Senate was being asked to drop the articles with no testimony.
Shott stood before the Senate and apologized: “It wasn’t our intention to waste anybody’s time.”
As he walked out, he was invited to comment further. He shook his head to decline and kept walking.
The other point of contention for senators was whether to continue with proceedings for Justice Robin Davis, who angrily announced her retirement the day after the House passed impeachment articles.
“What we are witnessing is a disaster for the rule of law, the foundation of our state, and indeed, our very society,” Davis stated on August 14.
“For when a legislative body attempts to dismantle a separate branch of government, the immediate effects, as well as the precedent it sets for the future, can only be termed disastrous.”
Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan, presented a motion to dismiss the articles involving Davis, saying there’s no longer any point.
“Under the circumstances, the question is rendered largely moot,” Trump said. “I would urge my colleagues in the Senate there is no purpose in proceeding with articles of impeachment on Justice Davis.”
He noted that the Constitution refers to impeaching officers of the state. “Former Justice Davis no longer qualifies among the definition of persons who may be impeached.”
Many of his Senate colleagues disagreed.
Senator Robert Karnes, R-Upshur, said it’s possible Justice Davis still could be considered a senior status judge, eligible to serve on open benches around the state. Senator Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, contended going ahead with trial actually means Davis has a chance to prove her innocence.
“Let’s move forward with it,” Blair said.
In the end, the motion to remove Davis was rejected on a 15-19 vote. The vote was not along party lines.
So the fall calendar is filled with impeachment trials.
Justice Walker starts off at 9 a.m. Oct. 1. That’s just one day before the scheduled federal trial of her former colleague, Allen Loughry.
Justice Workman is set for 9 a.m. Oct. 15.
Retired Justice Davis, who has gathered a legal team of national reputation, goes at 9 a.m. Oct. 29.
There’s a scheduled break to observe Election Day, which is Nov. 6.
Then, starting at 9 a.m. Nov. 12, the grand finale is the Senate trial of Justice Loughry.
Very little of this promises to be simple.
As Shott alluded during his advocacy for a settlement, the House managers serving as prosecutors have identified at least 30 witnesses that would need to be called.
“We’ve been told there may be as many as 60 witnesses on the other side, voluminous documentation,” Shott said.
“We’ve developed exhibits that exceed 100. We’ve also been provided with over 50,000 documents by the opposing parties that we are attempting to sift through.”
West Virginia has carved out an enormous undertaking for itself to put its Supreme Court on trial.
“I’ve said from the get-go that this is not only sad but there are no winners,” Shott told the senators.
“There will be and there are no winners in this procedure. To the extent that the trust of the public in our judicial system is undermined, we all lose.”