The state Supreme Court swiftly knocked down a challenge by local political leaders who were contesting actions by Gov. Jim Justice and the state Republican Party in filling a vacant seat in the House of Delegates.
That means Joshua Booth, a businessman from Kenova, may be seated as a delegate when the regular legislative session begins at noon Wednesday. Booth is filling the seat briefly held by Derrick Evans, a newly-elected lawmaker who resigned after entering the U.S. Capitol with a mob.
Supreme Court justices, in their brief ruling issued shortly before 5 p.m. Tuesday, highlighted the tight timetable.
“Given that the West Virginia House of Delegates is scheduled to convene on February 10, 2021, for the first day of the legislative session, the Court issues its decision through this order with a detailed opinion to follow in due course,” justices wrote.
“The Court has thoroughly reviewed the arguments set forth in the briefs and appendices. After careful consideration of all filings and oral arguments by the parties, the Court is of the opinion that the writ shall be, and hereby is, denied.”
For about an hour earlier this afternoon, lawyers for Governor Justice and the West Virginia Republican Party presented arguments against a lawyer for the chairman of the Wayne County Republican Executive Committee.
A few weeks ago, the governor picked Booth, whose family runs a highway safety contracting business, to fill the vacancy. But Booth’s name had not appeared on a list originally submitted by Wayne County political leaders.
The argument before justices focused on who has the authority to submit names to fill such vacancies and the proper procedure for doing so.
“This is one political party committee that is elected by Wayne County voters engaged in a power grab or attempted control by the state executive committee that has no direct connection to the local Wayne County voters,” said John Bryan, counsel for the Wayne County GOP chairman.
“That is the whole point: that they ended up with somebody they voted for or necessarily even knew but they ended up with somebody that, according to the records, donated to Governor Justice when he ran for office in 2016 as a Democrat.”
He was referring to records showing Booth as a $1,000 maximum-amount donor to Justice’s first run, when he won as a Democrat before changing parties after a few months.
State code says any such vacancy is to be filled by the governor “from a list of three legally qualified persons submitted by the party executive committee.”
The law continues to say, “In the case of a member of the House of Delegates, the list shall be submitted by the party executive committee of the delegate district in which the vacating member resided at the time of his or her election or appointment.”
After Evans resigned from the Legislature Jan. 9, the local political committee on Jan. 13 submitted a letter citing state code that “executive committee members residing in the 19th Delegate District are submitting the following names for consideration” — Mark Ross, Chad Shaffer and Jay Marcum.
After the letter was sent, the Governor’s Office and the state Republican Party intervened, contending the wrong local political committee submitted the initial letter, rendering it invalid.
“The county letter doesn’t satisfy the plain text of the statute,” said Lindsay See, solicitor general for the state, arguing for the Governor’s Office.
It’s a fine point.
House District 19 is located wholly within Wayne County. Part of the county lies outside the district, though. So the lawyers from the state are saying the letter should have come from a political committee specifically representing the district.
The argument gets into the specifics of the initial letter, highlighting Maynard’s signature line that identifies him as chairman of the Wayne County Republican Committee. The letter’s heading also is from “The Wayne County Republican Executive Committee.”
After interim Republican Party Chairman Roman Stauffer got involved, a second list produced Jan. 22 included two candidates from the first, Mark Ross and Chad Shaffer. But the second letter subbed in Joshua Booth for Jay Marcum.
During oral arguments today, Bryan said four Wayne County committee members who reside in District 19 participated in the first selection process.
He said the second selection process involved only two members, falling short of a quorum.
But See said the governor acted on the only letter his advisors saw as meeting the standard.
“He received the first letter that was facially invalid and then he acted on the second letter,” See said.
Attorney Zak Ritchie, representing the state Republican Party, agreed that the first letter fell short and said the second letter was appropriate.
“There was no disenfranchisement here,” Ritchie said.