CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The state Supreme Court has suspended new Nicholas County Circuit Judge Stephen Callaghan for two years without pay for a political flyer his campaign used during last year’s judicial election.
The flyer, which said Callaghan’s opponent, 23-year Nicholas County Circuit Judge Gary Johnson, was partying a the White House with President Barack Obama set off a firestorm. After the election, in which Callaghan defeated Judge Johnson by 220 votes, Johnson’s son filed an ethics complaint against Callaghan claiming he violated the Judicial Code of Conduct.
The West Virginia Judicial Hearing Board found three violations. The controversy eventually made its way to the High Court.
The Supreme Court, made up of former Justice Thomas McHugh and four circuit judges, heard the case last month.
McHugh, who authored the opinion, said what judges say while they are on the bench and while they are seeking the office is important.
“Not only is protecting the integrity of the judiciary the constitutional duty of this Court, but it has likewise been woven into the fabric of public policy as expressed by our Legislature,” McHugh wrote.
Callaghan’s attorney argued several points including his client’s speech was protected by the Constitution. The Court disagreed.
“Based on this Court’s independent review of the record, we find that clear and convincing evidence of improper conduct has been presented in support of each of the violations found by the Board and that Judge-Elect Callaghan’s constitutional arguments afford him no relief,” the opinion said. “Further, we adopt the Board’s recommended discipline, with modification, and find that, under the unique circumstances presented herein, it is appropriate to suspend Judge-Elect Callaghan from the judicial bench for a total of two years without pay, along with the recommended fine of $15,000.00, and reprimand as an attorney. The Court further directs Judge-Elect Callaghan to pay the costs of the proceedings.”
All five elected members of the state Supreme Court removed themselves from the case because the Court hired Johnson to be their interim court administrator in January.