Friday, 23 October 2020

A Coup or a Couch? What’s Behind the Impeachment of West Virginia’s Supreme Court

“They’re going after everyone because it’s the balance of the court,” said Delegate Mike Pushkin, a Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. In February, he was one of the first lawmakers to push for an investigation into Justice Loughry, for the personal use of state property as well as for allegedly covering it up. At the time, Mr. Pushkin’s resolution was brushed aside as “ridiculous” by the Senate president.

But the extravagant spending became fodder for a court-wide impeachment — as Mr. Pushkin contends — after Mr. Loughry was suspended and control of the court appeared up for grabs. Nonetheless, Mr. Pushkin added, lavish spending by itself is not actually illegal.

Unusually among state constitutions, West Virginia’s Constitution allows the judiciary to set and control its own budget. Judicial salaries are set by the Legislature and there are plenty of mandated costs, but the purchase of a $32,000 sofa, as a strict legal matter, is at the discretion of the court. There is an amendment on the ballot this November that would put the judiciary’s budget under legislative oversight.

This is what dominated talk in the State Capitol on Monday: the extent to which extravagant spending was unconstitutional or simply appalling, and whether something could be appalling enough to justify annulling the results of a statewide election — perhaps even four statewide elections.

“I find many of these purchases offensive,” said Delegate Chad Lovejoy, a Democrat, who pointed out that the cost of the infamous sofa was far greater than the per capita income in his district. But, he continued, the Legislature had recently spent nearly a million dollars renovating bathrooms in the Capitol.

A mass judicial impeachment, over lavish but legally permissible spending, he said, was unwarranted and possibly even a violation of the separation of powers. “It’s unprecedented in the United States that one branch of the government goes in and lops off another,” he said.

In response, Republican lawmakers argued that at some point bad judgment, even if legal, can be so bad that it becomes “maladministration,” and thus grounds for impeachment.


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