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Senate removal of justices could allow Governor Jim Justice to cement GOP majority on court
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
CHALRESTON, West Virginia (CFP) — West Virginia’s Republican-controlled House of Delegates has voted to impeach all four members of the Supreme Court of Appeals over allegations of overspending and mismanagement — a move that could cement GOP control of state’s highest court.
The House approved 11 articles of impeachment against Chief Justice Margaret Workman and Justices Robin Davis, Beth Walker and Allen Loughry on August 13. The Senate will now decide whether to convict and remove the justices from office.
Republicans hold 23 of 34 seats in the Senate, one seat short of the two-thirds majority that would be needed to remove the justices.
However, after the impeachment vote, Davis resigned to deprive Republican Governor Jim Justice of the opportunity to appoint a replacement who would sit in her seat without facing election until 2020. She and Democratic leaders blasted the impeachment vote as a partisan power grab.
“The majority members (of the House) have ignored the will of the people who elected the justices of this court,” Davis said at a news conference. “They have erased the line of separation between the branches of government. In fact, the majority in the legislature is positioning to impose their own party preferences.”
Both Workman and Davis said they do not plan to resign and will answer the House’s charges in the Senate
“There is no basis for my impeachment, and I will continue to do the work, both administrative and judicial, that the people of West Virginia elected me to do,” Workman said in a statement. “I look forward to putting all the facts before the Senate in the next phase of this process.”
Republican legislative leaders insisted that removal was warranted over revelations of lavish spending and mismanagement by the justices, which triggered state and federal investigations that have led to criminal charges against two justices.
“After reviewing all the evidence available to us, it became clear that a culture of entitlement and disregard for both the law and taxpayer funds have damaged the reputation of our judicial system – and that all justices had a part in violating the public’s trust,” said Delegate John Shott, R-Mercer, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, in a statement.
Justice Menis Ketchum resigned in July after agreeing to plead guilty to one court of mail fraud for misusing a state-owned vehicle. Loughry, who has been suspended from the bench, is facing a 22-count federal indictment in addition to charges brought by the state Judicial Investigation Commission.
Workman, Davis and Ketchum were elected to the Supreme Court as Democrats. Loughry was elected as a Republican; Walker, who was elected after the state switched to non-partisan judicial elections in 2016, is also a Republican.
Ketchum’s resignation led to a 2-to-2 partisan split on the court, pending an election this fall to fill the remainder of his term.
However, if the justices were to be impeached, the justices appointed by Justice to fill those positions who would serve until the 2020 elections because, under state law, vacancies that occur less than 85 days before an election aren’t filled until the next general election.
Davis, by resigning, beat that deadline by one day, which means her seat will also be filled in a special election this fall.
If the three remaining impeached justices are removed and replaced by Justice with members of his party, Republicans would hold at least three of the five seats — and could possibly hold them all by winning the elections for the vacant seats in November.
Justice himself was elected governor as a Democrat in 2016, switching to the GOP in August 2017.
The impeachment votes in the House against Workman, Davis and Walker were along partisan lines, although some Democrats crossed the aisle to support impeaching Loughry.
The Senate is not currently in session, and Senate leaders have not announced a plan for how to proceed with the justices’ impeachment trial.
A flip toward Republicans on the Supreme Court would be the latest bad news for West Virginia Democrats, who have seen their once tight grip of state politics unravel.
Democrats controlled the legislature for more than 80 years before losing control to Republicans in 2014 and also dominated the state’s governorship and congressional delegation.
But the Mountaineer State has experienced a pronounced Republican shift in recent years, capped off by Donald Trump’s 40-point win in 2016, his best showing in any state except Wyoming.
The GOP now holds not only the governorship, but also six of seven statewide partisan offices, a U.S. Senate seat and all three U.S. House seats.
In addition to their margin in the Senate, Republicans control the House of Delegates 64 to 36.
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