Amendment 2 gives Legislature oversight of judicial budget

CHARLESTON — Voters concerned with the level of spending by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals will get their say thanks to a constitutional amendment on the November ballot.

Amendment 2 will give the West Virginia Legislature oversight of the judicial branch’s budget. West Virginia is the only state where the legislative branch has no say over the budget submitted by the judicial branch.

According to the wording on the ballot, Amendment 2 gives the Legislature the authority to reduce the amount of general revenue appropriations to the judiciary in the budget bill submitted by the governor’s office to the Legislature during every yearly legislative session.

While the amendment would give the Legislature the authority to raise or lower any line item amount in the judiciary’s budget, lawmakers can’t reduce the judiciary’s budget to an amount more than 15 percent of the amount appropriated to the judiciary the prior fiscal year without a two-thirds majority vote.

The amendment also requires the chief justice of the Supreme Court to appear for any questions regarding the budget bill.

“It brings our state in line with 49 other states and our federal government. That’s the No. 1 reason for it,” said Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. “There has to be checks and balances in the system.”

Amendment 2 was introduced Jan. 10, the first day of the 2018 legislative session, after a series of news reports documenting spending by the Supreme Court justices who also oversee the circuit courts, family courts and magistrates. Multiple reports from the Legislature’s Post Audit Division detailed massive amounts of waste, including:

∫ Depleting a $29 million surplus over four years down to $333,514.

∫ Spending $3.4 million on renovations to the Supreme Court’s wing at the state Capitol between 2012 and 2016, including $1.9 million on the offices of Supreme Court justices.

∫ Multiple instances of abuse of the court’s fleet of Buicks for personal use, including the use of state fuel cards.

“Now there is cause and effect,” Blair said. “People understand it now, with the couches being bought and offices being remodeled.”

A former justice, Menis Ketchum, resigned July 27 prior to the start of impeachment hearings in the House Judiciary Committee. He is awaiting sentencing in December after pleading guilty to one count of wire fraud in federal court for his use of a court vehicle and fuel card for an out-of-state golf trip to Virginia.

Justice Allen Loughry, still on the court but suspended without pay, is awaiting sentencing in Jan. 18 after being convicted Oct. 12 on 11 federal charges including wire fraud associated with use of state vehicles and fuel cards. The Judicial Hearing Board will hear a 33-count complaint on Jan. 16 brought by the Judicial Investigation Commission.

Loughry, Chief Justice Margaret Workman, Justice Beth Walker and former justice Robin Davis were impeached by the House of Delegates on Aug. 13. The House adopted 11 articles of impeachment with all four justices named in the final article.

Only Walker was acquitted in a trial before the Senate on Oct. 2. Impeachment trials are on hold against Workman and Davis after an appointed Supreme Court panel ruled against the House.

“Make no mistake: the whole reason we’re in this mess today in the impeachment process is what’s going on,” Blair said. “This didn’t happen overnight. It’s been decades long coming.”

The Senate joint resolution creating Amendment 2 had overwhelming bipartisan support in the Legislature, unanimously passing both chambers after it bounced back and forth while being amended by the Senate and House.

“We want to check the spending, not the power,” Blair said. “We just expect the job to be done in a cost-effective manner. There is no agency or branch of government anywhere that should not have some sort of oversight.”