French revolutionaries cut off the heads of the nobility. They used the guillotine to execute King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, but it didn’t stop there. During the Reign of Terror, between 1792 and 1793, revolutionaries beheaded thousands of people. (Officially, 16,594 received the death sentence.) As time went on, the “crimes” for which a person could be imprisoned or executed became increasingly vague.
West Virginia has neither the guillotine nor the death penalty, and naturally the pending impeachment trials of three current and one former State Supreme Court Justice cannot be compared with the French Revolution. However, in a civil society all prosecution is subject to the same standard—does the punishment fit the crime?
We have learned in recent months about the outrageous and indefensible spending by State Supreme Court Justices. Investigations into the champagne tastes of a Court that should have been operating on a beer budget also revealed allegations of improper use of state vehicles and gas cards by suspended Justice Allen Loughry and former Justice Menis Ketchum.
Loughry is also accused of lying to investigators and tampering with a potential witness. He is under federal indictment. Additionally, there are allegations of bending the law on how senior status judges are compensated.
These are serious matters, and enough to make the people rise up with a cry of “off with their heads.” They meant that figuratively (I hope), but the message was clear. There needed to be an accounting.
But a key element of justice is restraint. As John Locke wrote in his 2nd Treatise on Government, “one man comes by power over another; but yet no absolute or arbitrary power… when he has got him in his hands, according to the passionate heats, or boundless extravagancy of his own will.”
In other words, punishment should not be dictated by extreme anger.
Last week, the House of Delegates impeachment managers presented a reasoned resolution to the impeachment cases against Chief Justice Margaret Workman and Justice Beth Walker. House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Shott described the pair as not blameless, but less culpable, compared with Allen Loughry, who House managers believe is most culpable.
Under the proposed settlement, to avoid trials Workman and Walker would accept responsibility for the indefensible spending, commit to new Court policies to prevent recurrences and accept public censures. Shott correctly identified the proposal as fair, and one that would begin the long process of restoring trust in the court.
However the Senate leadership, on a procedural move, rejected the settlement, meaning Workman and Walker are scheduled for trial. Robin Davis is scheduled for trial even though she has already left the court, announcing her retirement last month just as the House voted to impeach her.
These four trials are going to be lengthy and expensive. Senate expenses will reach over $10,000 per day. If the trials drag on through the fall and perhaps even into next year, the Legislature runs the risk of being blamed for engaging in the very same behavior they are accusing the Justices of—wasting money.
Additionally, it will be difficult for House managers, who serve as prosecutors, to convince the necessary two-thirds of the Senators to convict Workman and Walker. If they are acquitted, the public then loses out on the accountability of the settlement offer.
Loughry is going to be removed from the Court and may even go to jail. Ketchum has pleaded guilty to a federal crime and resigned from the Court. It is unlikely he will go to jail, but his legal career is over and his reputation damaged. Davis is off the court and will forever have as part of her legacy that she was impeached for wasteful spending.
Heads have rolled.
Had the Senate taken the settlement, Workman and Walker would have been publicly censured, while accepting responsibility for extravagant spending of taxpayer dollars. They, too, would always have impeachment on their records.
Collectively, that feels like a just accounting, one that assigns responsibility and penalties without seeking to satisfy a bloodlust for the political guillotine.