Supreme Court impeachment process kicks off in West Virginia

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia’s Legislature started the early parts of the impeachment process for the state Supreme Court today.

The House of Delegates voted 89-0 with 11 absences to give its Judiciary Committee the power to remain in session and investigate.

That committee then immediately went into session, giving its members some context on duties and procedure.

The Judiciary Committee’s staff will spend at least next week getting organized, gathering documentation, preparing witness lists and possibly scheduling actual meetings.

Judiciary Chairman John Shott told the committee that it needs to work toward having a high standard of evidence.

John Shott

“There’s some sense that since we’ve got all these investigations all we’ve got to do is put the documents on the Senate’s table and hope that they’ll accept that,” said Shott, R-Mercer.

“I don’t know of any lawyer that I would hire who would go to court with the least they think is necessary to win the case. Nor do I know of any lawyer that I would hire that would assume the lowest standard of evidence might be applied. So until I learn otherwise, it would be my opinion as a member of this committee that we would need solid evidence that would be admissible regardless of the standard of evidence that the Senate applies.”

The House Judiciary Committee will be making recommendations to the full House of Delegates, which essentially acts as a grand jury, potentially voting on articles of impeachment.

The state Senate then would, essentially, act as a jury — deciding if one or more state Supreme Court justices should be impeached.

West Virginia’s Constitution says any officer of the state may be impeached for maladministration, corruption, incompetency, gross immorality, neglect of duty, or any high crime or misdemeanor.

Supreme court Justice Allen Loughry

The justice who has received the most scrutiny over the past few months is Allen Loughry, former chief justice and author of an often-cited book on political ethics.

Loughry was indicted last week on 22 federal counts, including fraud, false statement and witness tampering offenses.

Justice Menis Ketchum also has been in hot water over his use of state vehicles for personal travel.

Gov. Jim Justice called the special session Monday afternoon after months of controversy about the court.

The Legislature has been divided over whether to impose a deadline on the impeachment procedures.

August 14 is a key date for whether an open court seat would be filled during this fall’s general election or whether the governor would appoint someone to fill the seat.

Isaac Sponaugle

Democrats proposed an amendment on the House floor today to to establish a July 23 deadline for the House to do its part of impeachment.

“Should the voters of the state of WV have a right to vote on who their justices will be, or should the governor have that right?” asked Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton.

Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, said much evidence has been gathered already, by the Legislative Auditor and by the state Judicial Investigations Commission, which is likely to turn over its evidence after it is subpoenaed by the Legislature.

Tim Miley

West Virginia could begin to heal from its political controversies if the Legislature can conclude impeachment in a timely manner, Miley said.

“As long as this is hanging over all of our heads, it hurts us all and hurts the public confidence that we want our citizens to have,” he said.

Lawmakers wound up voting down the amendment to establish a deadline, 32 yeas to 57 nays, with 11 not voting.

The last time West Virginia conducted impeachment hearings of any kind it was for the case of state Treasurer A. James Manchin in 1989. Manchin, who was accused of financial mismanagement, resigned before his trial in the Senate.

When the House Judiciary Committee gathered on Tuesday afternoon, it got a bit of a history lesson — plus some advice — from Marc Harman, a former delegate and one of five legislative managers during the 1989 impeachment.

“You’re getting ready to investigate and potentially offer articles of impeachment,” he said. “You need to backfill every piece of information that’s out there. You have to find out what’s behind it, what supports it. You have to document it.”

Harman said the evidence needs to be clear and convincing.

“Our attitude and our process was we were never sure we would have enough to completely convince the Senate to do what they had to do because of the political popularity of the person involved,” he said. “And to that extent we attempted to leave no stone unturned. And we went to extreme lengths to get every piece of information we could get.”

He said the Supreme Court case might be more difficult.

“I consider your case to be much more daunting than mine, to be quite honest,” Harman said. “I really do. I consider your case to be much more daunting.

“You can’t look at each justice in a vacuum. You’ve got to look at the court plus each individual justice. You’ve got a variety of levels of potential problems you’re going to get into. I consider what you folks are about to get into a whole lot worse than what we went through.”

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