Charleston, WV – Governor Jim Justice has thrown cold water on what critics are describing as a GOP plan to slow-walk the likely impeachment of West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Allen Loughry. But Senate President Mitch Carmichael says there is no such plan to slow the process to ensure whoever takes Loughry’s seat would not have to stand for election this fall.
Some Democrats maintain that Republican legislative leadership has tried to delay the hearings in the House and the impeachment trial in the Senate. If a vacancy opens on the court more than eighty-four days ahead of November 6th, that vacancy would be filled by election. If the vacancy is filled after that, the person appointed by the governor would automatically hold the office until the term expires, as set out in the state constitution.
“I think it's always better to have an election. I mean there's no question about that,” says Justice. “If it if need be, I will appoint. But it's always better to hear the people's voice in, my opinion.”
He says “it's very possible” that some may want to slow-walk the impeachment and “it's something to be a little concerned about.” But he also stressed that he and the legislature are still early in the process. “We don't really have a resignation as of yet.”
Lawmakers passed the resolution empowering them to consider impeachment Tuesday.
The House Judiciary Committee will do much of the work in the early stage, and took up the resolution that day. One key question is how quickly that committee can finish, and it looks likely to meet next near the middle of the month.
Some observers have expressed confidence that the Chair, John Shott of Mercer County, will handle proceedings fairly. One progressive lobbyist went so far as to say sighs of relief could be heard around the capitol when it became clear Shott would be holding the gavel.
Others, including Assistant Minority Whip Isaac Sponaugle of Pendleton County, say there has been much more of a pitched battle over the timetable. He notes that when the legislative audit of the state supreme court and it’s follow-on report came out earlier this year, some capitol Republicans had argued that the issue should wait until fall.
“They initially slow-walked the report out and it was just going to be a review and then they were going we were going to come back and study it some more in September of this year.”
Sponaugle points out that would have left the voters out of choosing Loughry’s replacement. And he says GOP lawmakers also voted down a plan that would have set a one month deadline to wrap up impeachment.
“A month would be plenty of time. I mean, the whole legislative session is just 60 days. We were asking to give him almost 30.”
He says the Democrats on House Judiciary basically “slammed the desk talking about the election” to insist the process be finished in time for voters to have their say. Sponaugle says he feels impeachment is will still likely to creep along.
Senate President Mitch Carmichael says there is no go-slow plan. “That’s inaccurate and I think it's unfair to portray it in that light. The effort is completely to ensure that the process is followed correctly, that the evidence is reviewed, that both the accused and the those who wish to proceed with impeachment have full opportunity to present the facts.”
Carmichael stresses that lawmakers are in “uncharted territory,” especially for the Senate – which will act as a trial court. He says the last Senate impeachment trial was nearly thirty years ago.
“The last time I think was 19 witnesses in 10 days. But we really don’t know how long this will take.”
Another open question is whether GOP lawmakers will try to use Loughry’s troubles for a wholesale court cleaning – to find a way to have the Republican governor appoint two or even three justices, which would be a majority of the court’s five seats.
The resolution passed by the legislature was written to without targeting Loughry alone, and in fact says, “some or all of the five members of the Court may be guilty of maladministration, corruption, incompetency, gross immorality, or high crimes or misdemeanors...”
The auditors found other, smaller travel issues, but possibly more important may be interpersonal and partisan politics. The report dinged Justice Menis Ketchum for using a state car for private trips. Although Loughry faces twenty-two federal counts, Ketchum has not been charged and has apologized and paid the state back for the unauthorized travel.
One statehouse rumor suggests Ketchum might be vulnerable because of other questions about his personal affairs.
Loughry has insisted on his innocence and shows every sign of wanting to fight the charges as hard as he can.
Speaker of the House Tim Armstead has made clear that he wants a supreme court seat, and has even recused himself from the impeachment process.
Sponaugle says he feels that, “what the Republican leadership is attempting to do is there are certain appointments that are potentially lined up, all keyed up ready for the governor to go with. So if you want to give the people the ability to vote on this in November, time is of the essence.”
Dan Heyman has been covering West Virginia politics and policy for more than two decades. He likes dogs but has trouble keeping kudzu from swallowing everything he owns. For more of Dan's WV Strong content, click here.