West Virginia's top court bars impeachment trial of chief justice on constitutional grounds

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Chief Justice Margaret Workman.

Chief Justice Margaret Workman. Photo from the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.

The West Virginia Senate is objecting to an order of the state’s top court blocking a justice’s impeachment trial on constitutional grounds.

Acting with stand-in justices, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals on Thursday blocked the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Margaret Workman, report the Charleston Gazette-Mail, the Associated Press, Metro News and the West Virginia Record. How Appealing noted the coverage and linked to the majority opinion and partial dissent.

A majority of the court’s acting justices ruled the state’s House of Delegates violated due process because it failed to set out formal findings of fact and failed to formally approve the impeachment resolution. The court also ruled the impeachment prosecution violated separation of powers because the charges involve issues overseen by the judiciary.

The state senate plans to seek review with the U.S. Supreme Court, and it is still planning an impeachment trial. “Pursuant to the authority granted the Senate in the West Virginia Constitution, the Court of Impeachment will convene at 9 a.m. Monday,” said spokesperson Jacque Bland.

But the acting supreme court justice presiding over the impeachment trial, Paul Farrell, told the Gazette-Mail that the ruling prevents him from overseeing the impeachment trial. He did not participate in the Thursday decision.

The West Virginia House of Delegates had impeached the entire court in August after media reports about the high costs of renovating the justices’ offices.

Though the state’s Supreme Court of Appeals ruled in Workman’s case, the decision could apply to pending impeachment trials against two others: former Justice Robin Davis, who resigned and filed a federal lawsuit challenging her impeachment, and suspended Justice Allen Loughry, who is awaiting a verdict in his federal criminal trial on charges of mail and wire fraud, false statements and witness tampering. The criminal charges against Loughry accuse him of using a government vehicle on personal trips and lying about pricey court renovations.

Another justice, Beth Walker, was acquitted in her impeachment trial on a single charge of failing to establish polices for the use of state resources. A fifth justice, Menis Ketchum, resigned and pleaded guilty to wire fraud ahead of the impeachment vote.

All the impeached justices were charged by the House with failing to establish oversight policies for using public resources. Loughry, Davis and Workman were also accused of authorizing payments to senior status judges above amounts allowed by law. Davis and Loughry were also accused of unnecessary and lavish spending on court renovations. Davis was accused of spending more than $500,000 on her office renovation, while Loughry was accused of spending $363,000.

The court ruling Thursday said legislators have no jurisdiction over accusations related to oversight of public resources and judge payments, and an impeachment prosecution on those charges violates the separation of powers doctrine.

The law capping the payments to senior status judges is unconstitutional because judicial appointments are regulated by the state supreme court under a 1974 amendment to the state constitution, the court said. A 2017 administrative order by the court had authorized the higher payment, and that supersedes the conflicting statute, according to the court.

In addition, the court said, the oversight accusations allege violation of judicial ethics rules, and the court has exclusive constitutional authority over judicial conduct violations. The Senate could consider evidence of violation of a judicial canon, but it cannot be the sole basis for an impeachment charge, the court said.

In a footnote, the court said it “takes umbrage” with the tone of a brief by the defendants that asserts a ruling against them will create a constitutional crisis over the separation of powers. “This court is the arbiter of the law,” the footnote said. “Our function is to keep the scales of justice balanced, not tilted in favor of a party out of fear of retribution by that party. We resolve disputes based upon an unbiased application of the law.”

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