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Justices: Impeachment impasse may return one day

Last week’s decision by U.S. Supreme Court justices not to intervene in a squabble between the legislative and judicial branches of government in West Virginia puts the matter to rest — for now.

While there is no reason to believe the issue will come up again anytime soon, it could in the future. All it would take would be one state Supreme Court justice with a penchant for extravagance and/or a bit of larceny in his or her heart.

We had three of them last year, as you may remember. Two, former Justices Allen Loughry and Menis Ketchum, were using taxpayers’ money for personal purposes. Another, former Justice Robin Davis, saw nothing wrong with spending half a million dollars in state funds to renovate her office.

Davis, never accused of a crime, resigned. Ketchum did, too, then pleaded guilty to misusing a state credit card and car. Loughry was found guilty of numerous crimes.

Justices Elizabeth Walker and Margaret Workman — neither accused of wrongdoing — were impeached. Both were accused, in essence, of not doing enough to curb waste and prevent fraud. Walker was acquitted by the state Senate.

Workman never went to trial before the Senate. She filed a lawsuit against the Legislature, arguing the impeachment process was unconstitutional.

Because then-sitting justices had clear conflicts of interest, a special panel of five circuit judges sat as the state Supreme Court to hear the Workman case — and sided with her. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of that ruling.

It needs to be noted that legislators who appealed the case made it clear they had no intention of going ahead with an impeachment trial for Workman. But they did want the issue of whether the separation of powers doctrine prevents the Legislature from impeaching state Supreme Court justices decided.

As matters stand, the judiciary in West Virginia is empowered solely to police itself on non-criminal, but possibly unacceptable, behavior.

Today’s state Supreme Court is not the same as the panel that drew criticism last year. Justices seem determined to be responsible with public funds and to work with the Legislature.

Should that ever change, however, the U.S. Supreme Court’s action, or lack of it, last week may come back to haunt West Virginians.

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