CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Where is your residence?
Lawyers for Gov. Jim Justice say that concept is hard to define. That’s the gist of their response to a petition before the state Supreme Court over where the governor is constitutionally obligated to live.
“Neither the Constitution, nor the corresponding statutory provision codified at W.Va. Code 6-5-4 contains any specific guidance as to the meaning of the term ‘reside’ in this context,” lawyers for the governor wrote.
The governor is defending where he lives because of a petition by Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, who contends the governor makes his home in Lewisburg, almost two hours from the seat of government in Charleston.
Here’s what the state Constitution says:
“The Governor, Secretary of State, state superintendent of free schools, Auditor, Treasurer, Attorney General and Commissioner of Agriculture, shall reside at the seat of government during their term of office, and keep there the public records, books and papers pertaining to their respective offices.”
The governor’s lawyers say the definition of residence isn’t clear and that a strict interpretation wouldn’t allow the flexibility the governor needs to get out around West Virginia.
“If ‘reside’ merely means ‘presence’ then the duty to ‘reside at the seat of government necessarily involves elements of discretion,” the governor’s lawyers wrote.
“There are no specific legal requirements as to how much time the Governor is to spend in any particular locale, and it is axiomatic that the Governor must be afforded the discretion to travel about the state and govern as he sees fit.”
Log book of governor locations
The governor’s response makes reference to a log book that documents where he has spent his days over the course of his term. A spreadsheet of public appearances was included as an exhibit with the governor’s filing.
The governor’s response cites the log book in saying Justice has made 167 appearances in Charleston since his inauguration.
The response also cites the log book in saying Justice has made 100 public appearances at 28 of West Virginia’s 55 counties, “thus eviscerating Petitioner’s portrait of a governor who has been holed up in some remote location, inaccessible to the people.”
The response does not denote whether those appearances were on separate days or whether some appearances were all on the same day.
Justice was inaugurated Jan. 16, 2017.
From inauguration day to the day the response was filed, Oct. 16, 2018, a total of 638 days have passed.
If you calculate only work days, that’s 440 days the governor has been on the job.
“As the log details,” Justice’s lawyers wrote, “the Governor is often ‘present’ in Charleston but also throughout the state.”
Lingering residency questions
The governor has been responding to questions about where he lives for more than a year.
“Most all my time, I’m in Greenbrier County,” Justice said in August, 2017. “I don’t have any problem driving. I don’t have any problem with availability.”
Then, referring to his office in the Capitol building, he said, “If I need to be here 24/7 for 15 straight days and stay right in that office, I’ll be right in that office. I’m not going to let anyone work more than me. No way.”
Responding to a question about his residency during an interview this August, the governor continued to maintain his position that he doesn’t need to live at 1716 Kanawha Boulevard E., Charleston, also known as the Governor’s Mansion.
“If you knew what all I did, how much I’m here and how much I’m going all over the place and everything, I use this mansion as it needs to be used,” Justice said.
“I mean, I use it as my residence or my place of doing business or whatever, for what it needs to be used, for whatever I’m trying to get done. I don’t use it as a perk. You know, and I don’t want to use it as a perk. I just don’t want to do that.”
Sponaugle got frustrated and filed a petition as a citizen of the state, rather than in his official delegate capacity, earlier this year. His first attempt in circuit court was tossed because he hadn’t provided 30 days notice to the agency he was suing.
Justice is represented by outside counsel, led by former U.S. Attorney Mike Carey.
Sponaugle, who is a lawyer, argues not only that the governor is violating the Constitution but also that his lifestyle has had practical effects on the management of state government.
Praise, rather than disparagement
The governor’s lawyers dispute those claims. They say the governor’s work should be praised instead.
Sponaugle cited the frustrations of thousands of teachers who noted the governor’s absences from the Capitol during the nine-day statewide walkout this past legislative session.
“However,” the governor’s lawyers wrote, “rather than blame the Governor for causing the teachers’ strike, he should be praised for bringing the controversy to a successful conclusion.
Sponaugle also contends the governor didn’t have a handle on long-term flood relief, causing struggling West Virginians to remain without federal housing aid even though millions of dollars were available through the West Virginia RISE agency.
“The Governor should also be commended for taking the bull by the horns and correcting the issues relating to the RISE program,” Justice’s lawyers wrote.
The lawyers note that the governor transferred authority for long-term flood relief from the Department of Commerce to Gen. James Hoyer of the West Virginia National Guard.
“Thereafter, significant improvements have been implemented bringing new homes and repairs to those who need them.”
The West Virginia National Guard said last week that 33 cases have been completed, providing homes to residents struck by devastating floods in 2016.
U.S. Housing and Urban Development continues to call West Virginia a slow spender.
“The complete lack of any mention by Petitioner of these positive outcomes, and the Governor’s role in achieving the same, lays bare the political motivation behind the instant mandamus action,” the governor’s lawyers wrote.
Justice has often cited his flip phone as the means to reach him no matter where he is.
His lawyers take up that argument, too, saying the world has changed since the state Constitution was written.
“In view of the realities of modern technology and government, the Governor must be allowed the discretion to allocate his time as he sees fit,” his lawyers wrote.
“If a majority of the Legislature and/or the electorate disapproves of the manner in which he has exercised that discretion, they can impeach him or vote him out of office.