The historic and controversial impeachment of three current and one former member of the West Virginia Supreme Court has taken another strange twist.
Tuesday’s pre-trial motions in the Senate for Chief Justice Margaret Workman, Justice Beth Walker, suspended Justice Allen Loughry and former Justice Robin Davis opened with what amounted to a plea bargain proposal.
House Judiciary Chairman and impeachment manager John Shott proposed a resolution where Workman and Walker would admit their roles in the Court’s lavish spending on office furnishings, acknowledge the need to change court spending practices and accept a public censure.
Shott told the Senate that the settlement was a preferable alternative to time consuming and expensive trials to decide whether Workman and Walker should be removed from office. MetroNews’ Brad McElhinny reports Shott and fellow impeachment manager Delegate Andrew Byrd had met the previous day with attorneys for Walker and Workman, the Senate parliamentarian and the Senate attorney to figure out the logistics of Tuesday’s procedure.
Shott presumed that the Senate was on board with the deal. However, the resolution failed when Republican Senator Ryan Ferns challenged it on procedural grounds. He said it was inappropriate for the Senate to take up the resolution while the articles of impeachment were pending.
In short, he argued the Senate was making a decision about guilt or innocence before it had heard any evidence. Senate President Mitch Carmichael agreed with the motion and the settlement collapsed before there was even a vote.
Additionally, the Senate rejected Senator Charlie Trump’s motion to drop the articles of impeachment against Davis since she has already resigned. Senators Craig Blair and Robert Karnes argued Davis should not be able to avoid accountability simply by retiring.
The lingering question at the end of the day was why would the House managers pitch a settlement for Workman and Walker if the Senate was going to reject it? The Capitol halls were echoing with lots of speculation.
One suggestion is the Senate was caught off guard by the deal, with some members just hearing about it for the first time yesterday morning. But others believe that Senate leaders became worried that with the election just ahead they would be perceived as letting the Justices off the hook.
The public has been outraged by ridiculous spending–$32,000 for a couch, $7,500 for an inlaid floor, $28,000 for two luxury rugs, a $500,000 office renovation. A MetroNews Dominion Post West Virginia Poll found that 54 percent of voters have very little or no confidence in the Court, while 31 percent has “some.” That means only 16 percent hold the Court in high regard.
The Senate will likely remove Loughry from office and he still faces federal charges that could send him to jail. He’ll be off the court soon. Menis Ketchum resigned and pleaded guilty to a federal charge. He faces sentencing in December. Davis resigned in a huff, so she’s off the bench. The settlement offer would have censured Workman and Walker.
There is an important distinction between prosecution and persecution. The public exposure, federal investigation and impeachment have exposed illegalities, profligate spending and hubris by the Court.
The deal offered up by the House managers was a reasonable resolution. It included an admission by Workman and Walker of indefensible spending and a public censure, while avoiding the potential of a protracted and expensive trial that might well result in no accountability.
(Editor’s note: An earlier version of the commentary incorrectly listed the price of the inlaid floor as $750,000.)