A year of drama surrounds Supreme Court financial presentation

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — After a year of drama, representatives of the state Supreme Court were back before lawmakers.

Chief Justice Beth Walker presented the court system’s proposed $132 million budget. The court system is asking for about $7 million less than last year.

Context is everything.

The request follows historic controversy with the court that began with questions about expensive office renovations for several of the justices.

That led to the impeachment of all five of West Virginia’s Supreme Court justices, as well as federal charges against former justices Allen Loughry and Menis Ketchum, both of whom resigned last year.

The conflicts also contributed to the passage of a constitutional amendment giving the Legislature greater oversight of the judicial branch’s finances.

Last year at this time, it was then-Chief Justice Loughry who was presenting the budget. At the time, he assured lawmakers the court was being responsible and transparent.

Some of his testimony wound up being used as evidence, both at the impeachment hearings and in federal court.

Walker, who was impeached and censured, gave the budget presentation this year.

“We want to be transparent, we want to be responsible,” Walker told senators.

She was accompanied by new justices Tim Armstead and Evan Jenkins, who were elected last fall, as well as John Hutchison, who was appointed. Justice Margaret Workman had a conflict and could not attend, Walker said.

The proposed judicial budget anticipates cutting spending overall. It does not ask for raises for judges, and it does not build in money for the intermediate court of appeals under discussion in the Senate.

“We’re trying to shore up what we’re doing to be consistent with the rest of state government,” Walker said.

“Even though we are a separate branch, it doesn’t mean it relieve us for one moment for the need to be responsible to the taxpayers and to you.”

The wild card that Walker had to contend with was a report about a probation officer who had used a state-issued purchasing card to buy a gift from Victoria’s Secret as an incentive for a juvenile drug court participant.

That issue arose Tuesday afternoon, not long before the budget presentation.

The court system was taken to task last fall for allowing purchasing cards to be used to buy gifts for drug court graduates.

The question then was how to apply responsibility to the specific purchases.

In 2016 and 2017, the drug courts under the Supreme Court bought 529 gift cards totaling about $105,000 with the state purchasing card, without permission from the state Auditor’s Office to do so.

Sue Racer Troy, the chief financial officer for the court system, was called to testify about her knowledge of the Victoria’s Secret purchase.

Like others, she didn’t yet know much, except that three items had been purchased.

“We should not be buying from Victoria’s Secret on pcards,” Racer Troy told senators.

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