Supreme Court won’t intervene over West Virginia justices


CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) – The U.S. Supreme Court said Monday it will leave in place a court decision that derailed the impeachment trials of three West Virginia Supreme Court justices accused of corruption.

The case was one of a long list of those the Supreme Court announced it wouldn’t hear, and as is usual the high court made no comment in declining to take the case. Monday was the Supreme Court’s first day of arguments after its summer break.

The case the high court declined to review was a decision by five acting justices of West Virginia’s highest court who ruled last year that prosecuting then-state Supreme Court Chief Justice Margaret Workman in the state Senate would violate the state constitution’s separation of powers clause.

That ruling in Workman’s case was later applied to also halt impeachment proceedings against two other justices who have since left the court: Robin Davis and Allen Loughry. Davis retired after the House approved impeachment charges against her. Loughry resigned after being convicted in federal court of felony fraud charges.

Workman said Monday she was “immensely gratified.”

“For my whole 30 years serving in the judicial branch, I have always tried to serve with integrity and honesty and fairness,” Workman said. “I have never had a negative mark on my ethical record and I’m glad to say that I still don’t.”

West Virginia House lawmakers had impeached the justices in 2018 over questions involving lavish office renovations that evolved into accusations of corruption, incompetence and neglect of duty.

Workman contended the charge was invalid because it was based upon alleged violations of the West Virginia Code of Judicial Conduct, which is constitutionally regulated by the Supreme Court. The temporary justices agreed, ruling that judicial appointments are regulated exclusively by the Supreme Court. The ruling halted the state Senate impeachment trials.

Workman remains on the court but is no longer chief justice. The current chief justice, Beth Walker, was also impeached by the House, but was cleared at her Senate trial, which took place before the acting justices’ ruling in Workman’s case.

Walker declined comment Monday.

House of Delegates Speaker Roger Hanshaw has said the intent of the appeal was not to seek permission to restart impeachment proceedings but to correct legal errors in the decision of the temporary justices. Both Hanshaw and Senate President Mitch Carmichael said Monday they were disappointed that the U.S. Supreme Court won’t review the case.

“We still firmly believe last year’s decision was deeply flawed, went far beyond the scope of what the Court was asked to consider, and establishes a precedent that could have significant unintended effects on the legislative branch in the years to come,” Hanshaw said.

He said other options will be considered that would “restore and clarify the proper powers guaranteed to each branch of government, including a potential constitutional amendment to expressly clarify each branch of government’s powers with regard to impeachments going forward.”

Loughry was sentenced in February to two years in prison. Justice Menis Ketchum retired in July 2018 before the House impeachment hearings. Ketchum pleaded guilty in federal court to a felony fraud count related to his personal use of a state vehicle and gas fuel card and was sentenced to probation.

Judicial elections in West Virginia became nonpartisan in 2016, but the court’s impeachment scandal stirred political attacks. Some Democrats argued the court’s shakeup was a power grab by Republicans.

Two Republican former lawmakers – ex-U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins and former House Speaker Tim Armstead – were appointed in the place of Ketchum and Davis and later won election to complete their terms. Republican Gov. Jim Justice appointed a lifelong friend to replace Loughry until a 2020 special election.

State lawmakers and others have said public trust in the state’s court system was broken by the actions of Loughry and others. Voters in November 2018 approved a ballot measure allowing the GOP-led Legislature to decide each year whether to reduce the courts’ budget.

West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Margaret Workman pauses at Boone County Circuit Court in Madison, W.Va., Monday, Oct. 7, 2019. The U.S. Supreme Court is leaving in place a decision that derailed the impeachment trials of three West Virginia Supreme Court justices, including Workman. (AP Photo/John Raby)