It turns out that where the Governor of the State of West Virginia lays his head at night is a constitutional question.
The State Supreme Court has ruled that a state lawmaker’s lawsuit to force Governor Jim Justice to live in Charleston should proceed in Kanawha County Circuit Court.
Delegate Isaac Sponaugle (D-Pendleton) brought the suit as a private citizen, arguing that Justice is violating the state constitution’s provision which states that the Governor and other members of the Board of Public Works, “shall reside at the seat of government” during their terms in office.
Justice lives in Greenbrier County and commutes to work. His attorneys argue that the term “reside” is open to interpretation and that the judiciary would exceed its authority if it tried to regulate the comings and goings of the Governor.
But in an opinion authored by Justice Evan Jenkins, the court found that the term “reside” is not ambiguous.
“We now hold that, for the purposes of the residency provision located in Section 1, Article VII of the West Virginia Constitution, ‘reside’ means to live, primarily, at the seat of government and requires that the executive official’s principal place of physical presence is the seat of government for the duration of his or her term in office,” Jenkins wrote.
Jenkins also included some history in his opinion, referencing the specific debate among the state’s founders over the residence and salary of the Governor. Jenkins quoted a Delegate Brown from Kanawha County who said the Governor should live at the capital “so we may at least find him.”
Brown could not have known it, but he was prescient. Sponaugle’s initial complaint was rooted in the contention that Justice did not come to work regularly. “He just wasn’t showing up,” Sponaugle, who is an attorney, said during oral arguments before the State Supreme Court last month.
That was not an uncommon complaint among the Governor’s critics. However, that has been somewhat muted by Justice’s regular briefings from the Capitol since the pandemic hit last March. Additionally, Justice won re-election with 65 percent of the vote, suggesting a majority of voters are satisfied with his job performance regardless of where he lives.
However, the provisions of the constitution are not subject to the whims of popular opinion, so even though the public may not be overly concerned about Justice’s living arrangement, the case is going forward.
The issue now resides with Kanawha County Circuit Court Judge Charles King, and each side will have a chance to gather evidence they will want to present. This could include specific records of when Justice was at the capital and for how long.
Based on what the State Supreme Court has said the term “reside” means, Justice may want to think about packing an overnight bag.