CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A circuit judge asked whether if Gov. Jim Justice were compelled to satisfy the constitutional requirement to reside at the seat of government if it would affect the governor’s job performance.
“If he don’t want to go to the Capitol, go to meetings, he ain’t going to do it,” Kanawha Circuit Judge Charles King suggested, speaking casually during a hearing Wednesday.
The plaintiff in the case, Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, responded, “It increases the odds that he will go to work.”
“Do you think?” King asked back. “I don’t know.”
King presided over a hearing on whether Justice should be compelled to live at the seat of government, as the state Constitution requires.
King was considering a motion from lawyers representing the Governor’s Office to dismiss the case, as well as motions on whether to allow discovery. The judge did not definitively rule on Wednesday.
What played out in the courtroom was a debate over the court’s power to enforce an ongoing matter like residing, whether residing can actually be defined, how much flexibility the governor needs and how that aspect of the Constitution could actually be enforced.
At one point, King pondered what the seat of government means. All sides agreed that it doesn’t necessarily mean the Governor’s Mansion. But how broad is it?
Sponaugle suggested that if the mansion doesn’t suit the governor’s needs, he could get an apartment or a condominium.
“He can live in a van down by the Kanawha River,” Sponaugle said.
Later, King said even that lack of definition could pose problems.
“He could go from motel to motel,” King said, namedropping some chains like Embassy Suites and Marriott. “Nobody would know where he was.”
The state Constitution addresses 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.
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 case challenging whether the governor adheres to West Virginia’s constitutional requirement to live at the seat of government has bounced around the court system for the past year.
The case was first tossed out of King’s court because Sponaugle had not provided a required 30 days notice of suing a government agency. Sponaugle then took the case to the state Supreme Court, which rejected the petition.
So, he filed again with Kanawha Circuit Court, which covers cases affecting state government agencies.
Sponaugle, a Democrat from Franklin, is acting in his capacity as a citizen.
Outside counsel for the Governor’s Office includes former federal prosecutor Mike Carey along with attorney David Pogue, who presented that side in court.
The lawyers for the Governor’s Office, as they did in earlier court filings, described the term “reside” as “nebulous” and “slippery like an eel.” They said it’s not the role of circuit court to enforce a concept that’s too loose to be enforced.
“We would be appointing the circuit court as a babysitter for the governor,” Pogue said.
Aside from the court system, there are other ways the situation could be addressed, Pogue said.
“There are other remedies to this,” he said. “The remedy is for the citizens to vote the person out of office or through their elected representatives in the Legislature to remove him from office.”
Sponaugle suggested the judge could issue an order, and if the governor doesn’t comply then he could be held in contempt. Alternatively, Sponaugle said, the judge could find the governor is temporarily disabled and halt his term as the chief executive until he complies. That would, for the time being, hand reins to the Senate president.
“You’re going to have your suitcase and you’re going to move here,” Sponaugle suggested the judge order.
As for impeachment, Sponaugle said that allows the governor to say, “I’m ignoring it and if you don’t like it, you’re going to have to impeach me.”