Breaking news: The other day, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Beth Walker and Justices Tim Armstead and Evan Jenkins were having lunch together in the cafeteria in the basement of the state Capitol, and they paid for their own meals!
Those who have followed the controversy over the spending habits of the state Supreme Court know that, as WCHS TV reported, between 2016 and 2017, the Court spent over $19,000 of taxpayer money on meals for justices and staff.
The sizable lunch bill was one example of profligate spending by the Court. There was also the $32,000 couch, $28,000 for two rugs, $7,500 for an inlaid wooden floor in the shape of the state, a $500,000 office renovation, and the use of state vehicles and gas cards for private purposes.
The scandal led to the impeachment of four Justices, the resignation and conviction of two justices and the retirement of a third, as well as passage of an amendment to the state Constitution giving the Legislature purview over the Court’s budget.
The Court, with three new members, emerged from the controversy appropriately humbled. Chief Justice Walker says the Court understands that the imperiousness so common previously on the Court must be replaced by accountability and transparency.
“We are just making ourselves more accessible. We’re trying to be out and about. We’re trying to avoid being isolated,” Walker said on Talkline last week. “We have a very important job ahead of us to re-earn the trust of West Virginia taxpayers and the folks here at the Legislature and we’re doing everything we can every day to do just that.”
Obviously, that goes well beyond chowing down with everybody else in the cafeteria.
The Court has tightened up its travel policy, making it clear that state vehicles may only be used for official purposes. Former Justices Menis Ketchum and Allen Loughry took advantage of the previously vague policy to use state vehicles for private trips.
Justices have adopted a series of new policies to better track and control spending, including parameters for use of the state purchasing card.
State property and equipment belonging to the Court is now inventoried and cataloged. That follows Loughry’s use of the Cass Gilbert desk and a state computer at his home.
“We’re adopting policies that should have been in place a long time ago,” Walker said.
The Court’s proposed budget for the judiciary next year is $8.5 million lower than this year’s budget. “We’re trying to shore up what we’re doing to be consistent with the rest of state government,” Walker told lawmakers during her budget presentation. “Even though we are a separate branch, it doesn’t mean it relieves us for one minute from the need to be responsible to the taxpayers and you.”
The Court sits sequestered in a secure wing of the State Capitol, but the justices are now trying to break down those barriers by getting out more. “All of us are doing that,” Walker said. “We’re taking the Court back out on the road. We’ll be at WVU in March and we’ll have oral arguments in Berkeley Springs in April. We just think we ought to be out and talking to people.”
That is a simple but significant step by the new Court. The previous scandal-plagued Court’s disconnect from reality and tone deafness contributed to its downfall.
As for lunch in the Capitol basement, where people from all walks of life collect to eat and mingle? “I enjoy going down to the cafeteria and running into everyone,” Walker told me.
Plus, the prices are reasonable, which is helpful when you are paying for your own lunch.