Justice: Compromise needed on court funding levels

Among multiple budget battles state legislators are working to resolve this week is one over how much taxpayers will spend to ensure justice is done in West Virginia.

That is because House of Delegates members, in a strikingly bipartisan vote, have agreed to slash spending by the state Supreme Court. That section of the general revenue budget covers expenses for the courts at all levels, from magistrates on up to the high court.

Changing minds in the House may be difficult. Approval of the general revenue budget, containing $121.4 million for the courts, came in a 92-5 vote last week.

In comparison, the five Supreme Court justices had asked for $131 million for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Gov. Jim Justice sought $136.1 million for the purpose. The spending plan being debated in the state Senate included $135.6 million as of Friday. This year’s budget includes $139 million.

No doubt, the House vote had much to do with corruption and arrogance among some members of the court last year. Three of them no longer sit on the bench. Former Justice Allen Loughry has been sentenced to a term in a federal prison. Former Justice Menis Ketchum awaits sentencing after pleading guilty to federal crimes. Former Justice Robin Davis resigned from the court, after outrage erupted over her spending $500,000 to have her office remodeled.

Just two justices who were serving on the court at this time last year remain. They are Elizabeth Walker and Margaret Workman. Three relatively new justices, Tim Armstead, Evan Jenkins and John Hutchison, fill out the court.

As Jenkins explained last week, the current justices are sensitive to the need to rebuild trust in the high court. For that reason, they requested $8 million less than the current year’s funding, for a total of $131 million. Anger at the court — again, being demonstrated in a bipartisan fashion in the House — is understandable. But the new and, its justices say, improved, court deserves a chance to prove its members are prudent stewards of taxpayers’ money.

It needs to be remembered, too, that slashing the court’s budget affects justice at every level, throughout the state.

Delegates should be willing to compromise, then. While they may not be willing to provide the full $131 million requested, they ought to consider meeting the Senate somewhere in the middle on court funding.

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