CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice has named House Speaker Tim Armstead and Congressman Evan Jenkins, both Republicans, to two Supreme Court seats that opened after almost a year of controversy.
The announcements were made this morning in the Governor’s Office, as family and political supporters of the two observed.
Outside the roomful of supporters, fresh controversy ignited over whether the appointments of two well-known Republicans will truly restore belief in the court or, instead, further accusations that conservatives have turned a firestorm into a power grab.
Governor Justice told those who gathered on Saturday morning that the appointments will help.
“We need true conservatives — this is really important — with honor and integrity to restore the trust from the blow to the stomach we’ve suffered in the last few months,” said Justice, who announced appointments and then departed.
The appointments would last through the General Election, which is Nov. 6. At that point, voters will pick who should fill the vacancies on the Supreme Court.
Armstead and Jenkins were among the names provided to the governor by the Judicial Vacancy Advisory Commission, which interviewed applicants Thursday and Friday.
Governor Justice made a point of saying he wanted to appoint people who would want to run again. He said he would like a chance of maintaining continuity, considering the tumult the court has gone through as each of its members faced indictment or impeachment.
Armstead and Jenkins are among the 20 candidates running for the two seats.
For now, Armstead will fill a seat vacated by Justice Menis Ketchum, who resigned right before impeachment proceedings began in the House of Delegates. Ketchum pleaded guilty to this week to federal charges related to using a state vehicle and a state-issued card for his travel to out-of-state golf outings.
Jenkins will fill a seat vacated by Justice Robin Davis, who resigned after being named in articles of impeachment in the House of Delegates. Jenkins ran against Davis for the court in 2000.
Davis resigned after being named in articles dealing with her $500,000 office renovation, accusations that she had played a role in the unlawful overpayment of senior status judges and a maladministration claim that she and other justices failed to hold each other accountable.
She blasted the impeachment process that led to her abrupt retirement.
“The majority have ignored the will of the people who elected the justices of this court,” Davis said. “They have erased the lines of separation between the branches of government. In fact, the majority in the legislature is positioning to impose their own party preferences.”
Armstead, who resigned this past week from the House of Delegates to pursue the Supreme Court seat, recused himself from overseeing the impeachment proceedings but was told to vote in his role as a delegate on the articles.
Speaking to reporters after his appointment, Armstead said he feels comfortable accepting the appointment, despite the controversial context.
“I think I have taken every step possible to ensure the integrity of the process as we went through the legislative process,” he said.
“I’m looking at the future, restoring the confidence in the court. I think that’s what our goal needs to be, is to make sure we look at the ways we can assure the people of our state that we’re going to apply the rule of law, that we’re going to have integrity.”
Jenkins said he will resign from Congress when he takes the bench. He emphasized that the office for the Third Congressional District will remain open. He was not returning to office because he opted to run last spring for U.S. Senate, losing in the Republican primary.
Each new justice described receiving a call Friday evening, strongly suggesting they should be at the Governor’s Office on Saturday morning.
“Very humbling and very exciting and very optimistic about the future,” Jenkins said. “A lot of work to be done restoring the trust and confidence in our state’s highest court.
“I have pledged very clearly to the West Virginia people to make every decision impartial, follow the rule of law, follow our Constitution. But there is another aspect at this unique point in time that we find ourselves as a state, where our confidence and our trust in our highest court has been rocked at its very core. So one of my responsibilities and obligations is to, from Day 1, work to restore the public’s confidence.”
Democrats in the House of Delegates put out a statement critical of the nature of the appointments.
House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, congratulated Armstead and Jenkins, adding that he trusts both will serve to the best of their abilities.
“However, with no disrespect to either of them, the appointments by the Governor do nothing to restore, or even begin to rebuild, public confidence in the highest court of our state,” Miley stated.
“Instead, it perpetuates the belief that the Supreme Court has become the subject of a political agenda. With these obviously political appointments, Governor Justice continues his takeover of the West Virginia Supreme Court.”
Jenkins, a Huntington resident who served in the state Legislature for many years as a Democrat before winning a congressional seat as a Republican, has a business administration degree from the University of Florida and his law degree from Samford University.
He previously served as the executive director of the West Virginia State Medical Association and taught business law at Marshall University.
Armstead, an Elkview resident who has served in the House for two decades, has political science and history degrees from the University of Charleston and his law degree from West Virginia University.
He has more than 27 years of experience in private legal practice. Armstead worked until 2016 for Columbia Pipeline Group but was laid off when TransCanada bought the company and eliminated the West Virginia legal division.
Armstead announced this past January that he would not seek election in the House of Delegates again, strongly hinting at a run for the Supreme Court in 2020. This year’s events moved up that timetable, culminating with Saturday morning’s appointment.
Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion, the minority whip, was among those expressing criticism.
“Many people at the Capitol assumed this was a foregone conclusion as the impeachment process got underway,” Caputo stated.
“However, it is disappointing that Governor Justice has appointed career politicians to the highest court.”
Chief Justice Margaret Workman and Justice Beth Walker, still fighting impeachment charges with a Senate trial approaching, remain on the court.
Cabell Circuit Judge Paul Farrell has been named to the court to serve during the suspension of Justice Allen Loughry, who faces not only impeachment but also 25 federal charges. Loughry pleaded not guilty this past week and has an Oct. 2 federal trial date.
The state Senate is preparing for trials dealing with the 11 articles that were passed over from the House of Delegates.
Separate trials are expected for each of the remaining justices. Senators will be serving as a jury, deciding whether to remove any of the justices from office. A tentative timetable for the first trial has been described as mid-September.
— Brad McElhinny (@BradMcElhinny) August 25, 2018