West Virginia House, Senate set dates to return

CHARLESTON — The West Virginia Senate and the House of Delegates have set dates to return to the Capitol Building, but for different purposes.

Senators will return Sept. 11 and take their oaths as jurors for a pre-trial hearing in the impeachment trials of justices of the West Virginia Supreme Court.

According to Senate Clerk Lee Cassis, a summons, the articles of impeachment and the rules adopted Monday by the Senate were served on Tuesday on Justices Allen Loughry, Margaret Workman and Beth Walker. The impeached justices or their legal counsels will attend the Sept. 11 hearing starting at 10 a.m.

“At that time, the Senate will convene and then sit as the Court of Impeachment,” Cassis said in an update to senators. “Oaths will be taken by the presiding officer (Acting Chief Justice Paul Farrell) and by the jurors (senators) and then it is anticipated that we will move to the pre-trial conference phase.”

According to the rules for the impeachment trial in Senate Resolution 203, the acting chief justice presides over the pre-trial conference “to stipulate to facts and exhibits and address procedural issues.” Cassis said that dates for the trials of each justice could be set during this hearing, but the acting chief justice has final say over dates.

“It is possible that the trial dates for respondents will be set by the presiding officer during the pre-trial conference phase,” Cassis said. “Until the trial dates are set, we won’t know more about our schedule.”

SR 203 sets in place the procedures for the impeachment trials. Each justice will be individually tried, but the order of who is tried first will be determined by Farrell.

The House of Delegates adopted 11 articles of impeachment against Loughry, Workman, Walker and former justice Robin Davis, who resigned Aug. 13. Loughry faces six individual articles, Workman faces one individual article and Walker, Loughry and Workman are charged together in another article.

Charges range from spending thousands of dollars on office renovations, using state property for personal use, lying under oath, overpayment of senior status judges and having no policies or controls in place to hold themselves accountable.

The House of Delegates will also be gaveling in at 9 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 29, to choose the next House speaker. Tim Armstead, a Republican from Kanawha County, resigned Tuesday as speaker after four years and 20 years in the House of Delegates. Armstead filed for the division 1 West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals to fill the remaining two years of former justice Menis Ketchum’s term of office.

Ketchum resigned July 27 and agreed to plead guilty to a federal information accusing him of one count of wire fraud. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for Southern West Virginia said Ketchum used state vehicles and fuel cards for out-of-state golf outings. Ketchum has a plea hearing scheduled 11 a.m. today.

According to state code, the governor is supposed to call a special session within 10 days of a vacancy or death of a House speaker so delegates can select a new speaker. But lawmakers are already in a special session, called by Gov. Jim Justice June 26 to start the impeachment process.

Armstead recused himself as speaker for the special session due to expressing interest in a future Supreme Court run. House Speaker Pro Tempore John Overington, R-Berkeley, is acting speaker during the special session.

Because lawmakers are already in a special session, House communications director Jared Hunt said state code — and the 10-day deadline — doesn’t apply.

“After discussion with counsel and the clerk’s office…House Speaker Pro Tempore John Overington, R-Berkeley, does intend to honor the timetable established in this code section and plans to call the House of Delegates back into session on or before Aug. 31 in order to conduct the election of a new House Speaker,” Hunt said.

Once members of the House return, the two political parties will individually caucus and choose a candidate for speaker. The House will convene, the candidates will be nominated and the body will vote with the candidate of the majority party likely prevailing as the new speaker.

However, there might be a wrinkle in this plan. According to Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, any appointment made by Armstead, including the appointment of Overington as speaker pro tempore, became null and void when Armstead resigned.

“When the speaker resigned, all appointments to any authority position in the House lapsed with him or at least that has been the precedent in the House in the past,” Sponaugle said. “Overington only has the title…because Speaker Armstead appointed him as such. When Armstead resigned, then that authority of the title went with him, the same as everyone else.”

While Armstead did submit a letter of resignation, Sponaugle said that resignation can’t be officially accepted until the House meets again and the letter is announced by the clerk of the House. Under that logic, Overington could still serve as speaker pro tempore and a motion could be made to reorganize the House once the resignation is accepted.

Otherwise, according to Sponaugle, the House would need to call itself in to an extraordinary session for the purpose of selecting a new speaker. Hunt said Sponaugle’s scenario is not accurate.

“This is simply incorrect and has no foundation in either House rules, state law, or the past practices of the House of Delegates,” Hunt said. “According to the Clerk’s Office and legal counsel, all appointments made by a Speaker remain in place until a newly elected Speaker makes new appointments.”

Both Hunt and Sponaugle agree there isn’t a need for the governor to amend the special session call to add selection of a House speaker. Hunt said that House staff believe they are following the rules of the House and state code

“Legal counsel has also researched applicable case law, which allows the House and Senate to conduct organizational business and appointments when called into session, and therefore it is the opinion of counsel that it would not be necessary for the governor to add an item to the special session proclamation allowing the House to nominate a new Speaker,” Hunt said.