CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Getting a court ruling on whether Gov. Jim Justice abides by the state Constitution’s residency requirements may indeed be slippery like an eel.
The state Supreme Court this month rejected a petition taking aim at the governor’s daily whereabouts.
“Upon consideration and review, the court is of the opinion that a rule should not be awarded, and the writ prayed for by the petitioner should be refused,” justices wrote in a two-paragraph Nov. 14 order.
Justice Tim Armstead, who had been Speaker of the House of Delegates, recused himself from participating.
Governor Justice named Armstead and former Congressman Evan Jenkins to fill two open seats on the court. Each won election earlier this month.
This is the second time the governor’s residency issue has been tossed out of court.
A lawsuit filed in Kanawha Circuit Court was dismissed in September because the state delegate who filed it didn’t provide required notification about his lawsuit.
Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, re-filed the lawsuit a week later with the Supreme Court.
Sponaugle could continue to press the issue by filing yet again in circuit court. Today he said that is his plan.
“I’m disappointed that the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals will not hear the issue of Governor Jim Justice’s constitutional requirement that he resides at the seat of government,” Sponaugle said.
“It appears that the high court desires additional evidence regarding the Governor’s residency before weighing in on the matter. If that was the reason, then I agree a circuit court is the better venue for discovery purposes. Although based on the Governor’s public statements, he acknowledges that he doesn’t reside at the seat of government. I guess the court is hesitant to accept the Governor’s word as evidence.”
Sponaugle, who is a lawyer in Franklin, has been filing the lawsuits as a citizen. He contends Governor Justice has not lived up to the state Constitution’s requirement to live at the seat of government.
Where Justice lives has been an issue ever since he took office. He has continued to make his home in Lewisburg, a couple of hours from the Capitol. He says he works hard no matter where he is and that he may be reached at all hours via his flip phone.
The state Constitution always has and continues to address where officers of the executive branch should live: “They shall reside at the seat of government during their terms of office, keep there the public records, books and papers pertaining to their respective offices, and shall perform such duties as may be prescribed by law.”
That applies to the governor, secretary of state, auditor, treasurer, agriculture commissioner and attorney general.
Sponaugle’s lawsuit contended the case is about governor’s oath to uphold his constitutional obligations.
The lawsuit also asserts there’s been a practical effect of the governor not living at the seat of government. Sponaugle contends the governor is out of touch.
“Petitioner is further concerned about who is providing Respondent with his daily reports of state government since he is not present to witness it firsthand and may only be getting reports from one or two individuals that may have a desire to not keep him properly informed for other reasons,” the petition stated.
Lawyers for the governor responded that the concept of residence is hard to define — and that it needs to be flexible for the governor to do his job.
“The duty to ‘reside’ at the seat of government is neither plain in point of law nor clear in matter of fact, and necessarily involves discretion in the mode of its performance,” Justice’s outside counsel wrote.
“Indeed, this Court has recognized that the word ‘reside’ is ‘chameleon-like’ and ‘like a slippery eel,’ with no clear, rigid definition, and Petitioner has not even attempted to offer a definition or explain the precise parameters of the duty he seeks to enforce.”