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Former state Supreme Court justice says judicial budget needs to stay independent of legislative oversight

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A former West Virginia Supreme Court justice does not want to see the backlash against renovation spending in High Court chambers, first reported on Charleston’s WCHS-TV, spawn permanent changes to judicial budgetary oversight.

“I think that the optics of this are very bad,” said Richard Neely, an attorney and former Supreme Court justice during an appearance on Friday’s MetroNews “Talkline.”

“What I’m concerned with is the integrity of the judicial system in the long run.”

At their start around 2009, the Supreme Court renovations were projected to cost $900,000. Since then, those costs have climbed to $3.7 million, records showed.

Among the high-priced furniture pieces is a $32,000 sectional sofa with $1,700 worth of throw pillows for Chief Justice Allen Loughry’s private chambers.

In all, chamber renovation totals for the five justices were as follows:

Justice Robin Davis $500,278
Chief Justice Allen Loughry $363,000
Justice Menis Ketchum $193,909
Justice Beth Walker $130,654
Justice Margaret Workman $111,035

Currently, the Legislature has no control over how the $142 million allocated annually for the West Virginia general revenue judicial budget is spent.

Since the WCHS-TV investigative report first aired, both Senate President Mitch Carmichael (R-Jackson, 04) and House Judiciary Committee Chair John Shott (R-Mercer, 27) have indicated steps would be taken in the 2018 Regular Legislative Session to address that.

It’ll take a Constitutional Amendment to permit legislative oversight.

Like he did in 2016, Shott said on Thursday’s MetroNews “Talkline” he would sponsor a resolution in 2018 allowing for a statewide vote.

Hold up, said Neely.

“Nobody can condone that kind of spending on those kinds of things,” he said. “I’m not interested in being critical of the current court. What I am interested in doing is making sure that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

The authors of West Virginia’s Constitution, Neely argued, kept the judiciary’s budget independent of legislative interference for a reason.

Changing that would affect the effectiveness of the courts, especially those that serve people on ground levels, Neely said, like magistrate courts and family courts.

“We are not talking about the budget of the Supreme Court — as a court. In other words, it’s not five people and their staffs. It is hundreds of people out there who are trying to get fire on the target,” Neely said.

Neely served on the West Virginia Supreme Court from 1973 to 1995 with multiple stints as chief justice.

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