Reporter’s Notebook: The great judicial conspiracy plot
It’s another Monday, and another day where I’ll be covering a legislative body dealing with the impeachment of the entire West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.
This time, it’s the state Senate’s turn. They’ll be considering the rules of procedure on how the impeachment trials for justices Allen Loughry, Margaret Workman and Beth Walker will work.
The impeachment drama is sucking the oxygen out of almost everything else statehouse-related. I’ve been covering this literally from my first day on the job on June 25. It’s making it almost impossible to focus on other important stories. Almost every time you turn around, something new breaks.
Between last Monday and Tuesday, I filed six stories. I’m afraid to see how many words combined those stories are. I’m not complaining, as this is the job. But I do long for this turbulent ocean to become calm seas.
Speaking of words, there sure is a lot of parsing of language by armchair quarterbacks. Specifically, some have raised concerns over whether House Speaker Tim Armstead can be appointed to one of the vacated seats on the High Court.
This issue is state code prohibits a legislator who either voted to create an agency or voted for a pay raise for said agency during his/her term of office from being appointed to that agency. Some Democrats have been pushing this logic hard on social media.
I’m no lawyer by any means, but I do know how to read. The key word is “term.” There have been no judicial pay raises passed by the legislature during Armstead’s last term, which started in January 2017 and ends January 2019. You can only serve one term at a time.
He might have voted for judicial pay raises several terms ago. After all, he first started his legislative service in 1998. But the idea of preventing him, or anyone who ever voted for judicial pay raises at some point over the last 20 years is probably not what was intended.
In another parsing of language, some say Rep. Evan Jenkins, the Republican congressman from West Virginia’s Third District, can’t run. First, his law license is on inactive status. Second, the rules of judicial canon say he can’t run for a non-partisan office while serving in a non-partisan office.
Let’s address issue one: the state constitution requires candidates for supreme court to be members of the bar for 10 years. It doesn’t address whether an inactive status matters. There is a difference between being inactive and be disbarred. In this case, Jenkins put his law license on inactive during his congressional service. It doesn’t take much to become active again: just pay your bar association dues and it sounds like they’re happy as clams.
Issue two: Jenkins has already said publicly he plans to resign from Congress on or before Sept. 5, which is the day the supreme court’s fall term starts. That seems to make issue two a non-issue.
On top of these thoughts being spread around, there is also a fun conspiracy theory being spread. That is that this supreme court impeachment was engineered and is part of a plot to remake the court into a conservative court.
Who is behind this dastardly plot? Republicans obviously, but I’ve also seen this plot blamed on the Federalist Society, the Koch Brothers, Sinclair Broadcasting, and Hoppy Kercheval.
Let’s stop and bring some logic to this craziness. If this is a plot to stack the state’s highest court with conservatives, this might be the most poorly executed plot since the Bay of Pigs or Watergate.
Folks, it can be argued the court was already conservative, or at least business friendly. Loughry, a Democrat-turned-unaffiliated-turned-Republican; Walker, who campaigned as a conservative; and Ketchum, a Democrat but a conservative one. Most of the votes on the court came down to 3-2 decisions, with Workman and Robin Davis — married to a trial lawyer and known to be friendly to ambulance-chasers — being on the anti-business side. Even before Walker, former justice Brent Benjamin was known to be a conservative justice.
Now that we have two open seats up for special election, with the possibility of three or more court seats up in 2020 depending on who gets removed from office, you can bet trial lawyers will come out guns a ‘blazing. There will be a lot of money spent in a short amount of time. And they will want to avenge Davis, their fallen comrade.
You can try to say Republicans tried to drag out the impeachment process to get past Aug. 14 — the date that would have triggered a special election for any vacated judicial seat. I’m here to tell you that even if the House of Delegates had acted on articles of impeachment on Loughry alone and got done two weeks ago, it would likely still be in the Senate.
Once the Senate passes the rules of procedure today, a lot of the decisions for how quick this will go will be in the hands of the acting chief justice of the supreme court. And since that will be a straight-up trial, they’ll have to give a certain amount of due process to the remaining justices facing trial.
Circling back to what I opened this column with, this story is constantly changing, and I expect there is a lot more news to come over the next few months regarding the supreme court. This is a long way from over.
Steven Allen Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.