Reporter’s Notebook: Swift justice in Charleston?
Well, here we are. The West Virginia House of Delegates meets this morning to discuss and pass 14 Articles of Impeachment against every single sitting justice of the state Supreme Court of Appeals.
If it seems like we went from a slow and deliberate process to maximum warp, trust me when I say that the delegates on the House Judiciary Committee were just as surprised as you were. Democratic members of the committee expected Tuesday to be a short day.
From what I understand, committee leaders came to a realization last Monday night. The legislature just wrapped up the second session of the 83rd Legislature. With all house members up for re-election in November, those who win will become part of the first session of the 84th Legislature, which will also result in the election of a new house speaker.
What does all of that mean? It means there is a window of time that lawmakers have to complete the impeachment and conviction process. If this stretches on to the end of the year, the whole process has to start over from scratch. Committee leaders had no choice but wrap up the impeachment investigation and bring Articles of Impeachment before the committee.
There was agreement on many of the Articles of Impeachment, but there was much disagreement over articles dealing with the spending of taxpayer dollars. The Supreme Court has control over its budget, some argued, and while they agreed there was extravagant waste, it wasn’t criminal.
According to the state constitution, “Any officer of the state may be impeached for maladministration, corruption, incompetency, gross immorality, neglect of duty, or any high crime or misdemeanor.” The bulk of the reasons that can be used for impeachment are not criminal in nature.
As I’ve been fond of saying, impeachment is a political process. It’s not a legal or criminal process. The reasons for impeachment are very broad. For example, maladministration can be defined as “corrupt or incompetent administration.”
The problem, however, is lawmakers are seeing first-hand how easily it is to bring Articles of Impeachment against someone. Some on Twitter called for the impeachment of Senate President Mitch Carmichael for spending more than $800,000 on bathroom renovations. If a lawmaker believes this was corrupt or incompetent use of taxpayer dollars, you certainly can.
However, while it may be easy to bring Articles of Impeachment, we’re about to discover how hard it is to convict and remove someone from office. Using Carmichael as an example again, you’re going to have to get two-thirds of senators — who sit as jury during impeachment trials — to believe that $800,000 on bathroom renovations is a waste.
The bulk of those renovations occurred in the Senate’s six public restrooms. They had never been renovated in the history of the building. They were gutted, the crumbling 90-year-old plumbing and fixtures were removed, it was made compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and restored to the way that Capitol architect Cass Gilbert wanted. They’re not gold-plated, and one need only compare the house restrooms with the Senate restrooms to see why the renovations were needed.
The differences between Senate bathrooms and the offices of Supreme Court justices is night and day.
Speaking of the justice’s offices, I’ve been greatly confused how each justice was allowed to have such architecturally-different offices.
In Charleston, we have a Capitol Building Commission which rules on all updates and changes to the Capitol grounds. You can’t cut down a dead tree on the Capitol grounds that’s in danger of falling on a sidewalk without approval from the commission. The commission tries to protect the legacy of Cass Gilbert and keep the building the way he intended it to look.
Shouldn’t the Capitol Building Commission have had a say in approving the Supreme Court office renovations? The court’s administrator even serves as an ex officio member of the commission.
As Parkersburg News and Sentinel City Editor Jesse Mancini wrote last week, the court issued a letter to State Auditor J.B. McCuskey, who raised concerns over the irresponsible use of state purchasing cards by the court. Interim court administrator Barbara Allen didn’t mince words with her response: the Supreme Court is not subject to purchasing card rules. It’s also not subject to the State Ethics Act.
As former court administrator Steve Canterbury said during impeachment testimony a few weeks ago, “I think they think they say what the law is. That doesn’t mean they’re above it, but they say what it is.” Even the U.S. Supreme Court is held in check by the executive and legislative branches, but the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals thinks itself completely independent. That’s about to change.
Here is a fun scenario: “When sitting as a court of impeachment, the president of the Supreme Court of Appeals, or, if from any cause it be improper for him to act, then any other judge of that court, to be designated by it, shall preside.”
If all the sitting Supreme Court justices are being impeached, who is left to appoint someone to preside over impeachment? Apparently Workman believes the acting justice she appointed to fill in for Loughry, Cabell County Circuit Court Judge Paul Farrell, can also sit as acting chief justice during the Senate impeachment trial.
There is a problem with this. I don’t know anywhere in this country where the defendant in a court case can appoint the judge overseeing their case. In many cases the judge in a criminal proceeding is picked at random. Workman might have the authority to appoint, but Farrell definitely has a conflict of interest being hand-picked by a justice facing impeachment charges.
So, if Farrell shouldn’t sit as acting chief justice, who should? The thought is whoever Gov. Jim Justice appoints to sit in Ketchum’s chair can preside and shouldn’t have a conflict of interest.
The problem with that is whoever gets appointed only sits until November, unless that same person also files to run in the special election to fill the remainder of the term until 2020 and wins. It’s just another reason this is all starting to move fast.
Some also say it’s a conflict of interest for whomever Justice appoints, because the governor could be in the position to appoint more justices should the Senate remove one or more of the current justices from office. The problem is there are no perfect solutions, just solutions that are less bad than others.
The plus side is if Justice has to appoint new justices, they’ll be up for special elections in 2020 unless their terms are already up in 2020. Voters would have a say, but it wouldn’t be immediate.