West Virginia’s Supreme Court Car Fire - West Virginia Strong

West Virginia’s Supreme Court Car Fire

We don’t always get the government we want, but is it too much to ask the government to be good, efficient and effective?

I know several people who set their cars on fire while driving. In most cases, they were smoking and the ashes or the butt flew, unbeknownst, out the front window and into the backseat. It’s a pretty public spectacle, people driving by while your car is engulfed in flames on the shoulder. And you standing there knowing you are going to have to explain to a lot of people –police, insurance person, spouse- how you burned the car down.

People I know who have set their car on fire describe a similar set of events. “I flicked the butt of my cigarette out the window. I guess it flew into the backseat. All I can figure is that it smoldered for a while. Then I smelled smoke. I looked around to see where the smoke was coming from. Then the backseat burst into flames and I pulled over and bailed out. By the time the fire trucks arrived there was nothing left but a smoldering frame.”

Nobody says, “I smelled smoke but I completely ignored it. Then the backseat burst into flames but I figured, ‘Heck, I can make it home,’ so I kept going. I was driving seventy-five miles an hour. I figured the oncoming wind would push the flames toward the trunk. Maybe blow them out altogether. I just kept my eyes on the road and hoped that if I ignored the flames they might just go out and nobody would notice.”

Nobody in their right mind keeps driving a burning car.

The West Virginia Supreme Court and the House and Senate’s handling of the impeachment procedures are basically a burning hulk on the shoulder of the road for everybody to see.

In September of 2017 news started to break that Chief Justice Loughry may have purchased a $32,000 couch with taxpayer money, and taken state owned furniture to his house.

Loughry’s misconduct became the smoldering butt in the backseat.

In January, 2018, Del. Mike Pushkin, a Democrat, said to the House what amounts to, “Holy cow boys and girls, the backseat is on fire! Maybe we should pull over and do something about that.” Pushkin asked the House to investigate Loughry’s alleged wrongdoing.

The House did what politicians do when the backseat is on fire. The Republican controlled House took a vote… and decided to ignore the fact that the backset was on fire. Why waste time investigating what would eventually turn out to be nearly $29 million in misspent tax dollars when they could just ignore the problem? Surely the citizens of West Virginia didn’t want the House of Delegates wasting time during the regular legislative session outing government corruption. When the flames started, the House went with the ‘Heck, I can make it home. Maybe the flames will blow out,’ option.

But the flames didn’t blow out. They engulfed the entire summer and are still burning in the fall. I don’t want to bore you with the details so here’s a quick summary. The fire got hot. The House leaders came to the conclusion they were going to have to deal with the fire. They called a special session in July to determine if any, or all, of the Supreme Court Judges needed impeaching. The Republican led House came to the conclusion that the whole lot of judges were guilty “on 11 various articles of impeachment, covering a range of grounds from wasteful spending, maladministration, incompetency, neglect of duty, and potential criminal behavior.” 

A couple judges resigned to escape impeachment, but for maybe the first time in US history, all the sitting judges on a state Supreme Court were impeached. Now that’s a fire!

So, now the Senate gets to vote whether or not to impeach the judges. They are presently in a special session discussing that.

All of these special sessions cost the taxpayers money.

Finally, either by neglect or design, because the judges were not impeached by mid-August, West Virginia voters don’t get the chance to elect all new judges. The governor gets the privilege of appointing judges to the bench to fill the vacancies left by the impending impeachment. His appointees will serve through 2020. Republican (for now) Gov. Justice has already appointed former Speaker of the House Tim Armstead, a Republican, and former US Rep. Evan Jenkins, also a Republican. Of all the people Gov. Justice could have picked to be Supreme Court Justices, he picked two people who, as far as I can tell, have never been judges to sit on the state’s highest court.

Once described as a “judicial hellhole” on the American Tort Reform Association's report, West Virginia was seen as making some improvements in recent years. Something tells me we’re taking steps in the wrong direction.

Smokey the Bear tells us to douse and ensure our campfires are out before leaving our campsites. I’m not sure we’re even spitting on the embers here.

The New York Times stopped by West Virginia to watch our Supreme Court hearings burning on the side of the road. The NYT printed this juicy quote: “They [Supreme Court Justices] think they’re better than everybody in this state that works a blue collar job!” thundered Delegate Michael Folk, a Republican…“The average citizen in the state of West Virginia is appalled.” 

It’s nice that Del. Folk is so incensed now that the car fire is just a smoldering hulk. Had he been thundering mad in January when Del. Pushkin first suggested the investigation, then at least all the average, blue collar job citizens of West Virginia would have a chance to vote on the judges’ replacements.

While it looks like the Republicans deliberately ignored the problem until they could have the Governor stack the Court in their favor, there is no actual proof of that.

Here’s the thing. No matter what side you’re on, there is no denying that this whole debacle is an utter failing of all branches of the West Virginia state government. The members of the Court overpaid their pals, spent millions on lavish offices, used state owned property for personal use, and generally acted like Supreme Court jesters rather than justices.

The House and Senate ignored the problem and then spent their sweet time dealing with it until the smolder in the backseat was burning like a California wildfire.

Governor Justice didn’t do much, if anything, to try and hasten the proceedings along and then appointed two of his political allies with no experience as judges to sit on the state’s highest court. My guess is that the rest of his appointees will not reflect a balanced court that might arise if left to the voters, but instead will mirror his own political agenda.

I understand that the way our system works sometimes the government reflects your beliefs, and sometimes the other guys win. That’s just how it is. But if we can’t have a government that does everything we want, shouldn’t we at least be able expect the government to be competent?

Where there’s smoke there’s fire. Where there’s corruption, somebody ought to get fired. The trick is to act fast before a problem becomes a catastrophe.

For more details on the WV Supreme Court Impeachment check out Dan Heyman's "Impeachment Treads To Watch."

Bil Lepp is a nationally renowned storyteller and a PEN Award winning author. To see more of Bil's WV Strong content, click here. 

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