West Virginia House impeaches four Supreme Court Justices

The West Virginia House of Delegates has voted to impeach four justices of its (five-member) supreme court. Lawmakers were largely unified on the impeachment of Allen Loughry, a Republican whose alleged fraud has led to federal charges, as well as Republican Beth Walker. Democrats in the House expressed opposition to impeaching fellow Democrats Margaret Workman and Robin Davis. In the end, however, all four were impeached.

Davis immediately resigned from the Court, accusing the House of staging a partisan coup. Her resignation was retroactive to Monday, meaning that a special election will be held for her seat this November. Under current law, if the three remaining justices are convicted, their replacements would be appointed by Governor Jim Justice.

In her resignation speech, Davis charged the Republicans in the legislature with conducting a witch hunt, alleging that “What we are witnessing is a disaster for the rule of law, the foundation for our state and, indeed, our own society…. For when a legislative body attempts to dismantle a separate branch of government, the immediate effects, as well as the precedent it sets for the future, can only be deemed disastrous.”

Davis’s claims would be cause for sincere alarm in many states, but her own actions suggest instead that they are wholly disingenuous. Her resignation was explicitly timed to trigger a special election. Under West Virginia law, if a judge leaves the bench more than 84 days before a scheduled election, the voters choose a replacement. If the judge leaves the bench with less time before the next election, however, her replacement is chosen by the governor. Monday, unsurprisingly, was exactly 84 days before the general election.

Davis’s retroactive resignation is nothing more than a transparent political ploy.  (She is not alone: House Democrats introduced a bill later in the day that would provide for special elections for all three remaining justices if they are impeached.) While Davis has not been proven guilty of the articles of impeachment, her refusal to even contest the charges and go to trial further undermines what little public confidence must remain in the court.

This is all rather extraordinary — but less so for West Virginia, whose long history of partisan judicial elections, questionable ethical practices, and big money influence is legendary. The state’s House Judiciary Committee Chairman, John Shott, said yesterday that “No one takes joy in this process.” If that sentiment is genuine, perhaps the people of West Virginia and their elected leaders should change the judicial selection system that makes circumstances like this possible.

In any event, the process now moves to the state senate for trial, which will be conducted by the judge standing: freshly appointed interim Justice Paul Farrell. Conviction requires a 2/3 vote of the 34-member chamber. No trial date has been scheduled.

Update on West Virginia Supreme Court impeachment proceedings

Today, the West Virginia House of Delegates will begin considering articles of impeachment against 80% of its supreme court. Fourteen articles were brought against four justices last week, mostly related to overspending, fraud, and creating a culture of overspending and fraud.

The full articles of impeachment can be found here.

Meanwhile, Judge Paul Farrell was sworn in as a temporary supreme court justice on Friday, replacing Allen Loughry, who has been suspended. (Loughry continues to hold his title and is one of the four justices facing impeachment.) In a strange twist, Chief Justice Margaret Workman (who is also facing impeachment) issued an administrative order appointing Farrell as acting chief justice for impeachment proceedings. In other words, if the House votes to impeach all four justices, a brand new justice with a temporary appointment would be thrust into the unenviable position of presiding over the trial.

West Virginia moves closer to impeaching its entire supreme court

The West Virginia House Judiciary Committee has approved fourteen articles of impeachment against the four remaining members of the state supreme court. Eight articles are directed toward Allen Loughry, four each against Margaret Workman and Robin Davis, and two against Beth Walker. In some cases, more than one justice is the subject of a charge.

Menis Ketchum, who resigned from the court at the end of July, was not included in the articles of impeachment.

Loughry’s alleged fraud on taxpayers is now well-documented and is the subject of a federal proceeding. The articles against the other justices suggest a widespread culture of lavish spending and corruption. As the Charleston Gazette-Mail reports:

Each justice is charged with “unnecessary and lavish” spending of state taxpayer dollars to renovate their offices in the East Wing of the Capitol. All four of them also are charged with failing to develop and maintain court policies regarding the use of state resources, including cars, computers and funds in general.

Loughry faces additional charges related to his alleged use of state vehicles for personal travel, having state furniture and computers in his home, having personal photos, documents, photos and artwork framed on the state’s dime, and handing down an administrative order authorizing payments of senior status judges in excess of what is allowable in state law.

 

Davis and Workman are charged with signing documents authorizing that senior status judges be paid in excess of what’s allowable in state law.

One article against Walker, charging her with using state money to pay an outside attorney to author an opinion in 2017, was rejected by the committee in a 14-9 vote. The outside attorney in that matter was Barbara Allen, currently the interim Supreme Court administrator, who wasn’t employed with the court at the time she wrote the opinion, said Marsha Kauffman, attorney for the Judiciary Committee.

The committee also rejected an article against Workman that charged her with facilitating the hiring of a contracted employee to do IT work for the court as a political favor.

The articles of impeachment will now advance to the full House.

One may ask what would happen if all four remaining justices are impeached and removed. Candidates are already lining up for a special election this November for Ketchum’s spot. But unless a justice is impeached before August 14, no more special elections can be called for this year. Instead, as this article suggests, it appears that Governor Jim Justice would appoint replacement justices for all vacancies on the court, and those justices would serve until the 2020 election.

John Cooke chosen to lead Federal Judicial Center

I missed the press release from late July, but it’s worth noting that John Cooke, currently the Deputy Director of the Federal Judicial Center, will be promoted to be the Center’s eleventh director next month. He will replace Judge Jeremy Fogel, who is leaving the FJC to lead the new Berkeley Judicial Institute.

From the press release:

John Cooke joined the Federal Judicial Center in 1998 as its director of judicial education programs, and he later headed the Center’s Education Division. The Board selected Mr. Cooke as Deputy Director in 2005. Before his 20-year career at the Center, Mr. Cooke was a commissioned officer in the United States Judge Advocate General’s Corps, achieving the rank of brigadier general. In the course of his military career, he served as the Chief Judge of the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals, the Judge Advocate for the U.S. Army in Europe, Academic Director of the Judge Advocate General’s School, and as a military trial judge. Mr. Cooke received a B.A. degree from Carleton College, a J.D. from the University of Southern California, and an LL.M degree from the University of Virginia.

Best wishes to the new Director!

On the mental health strains associated with judging

Years ago, in practice, I was involved in a series of cases involving allegations that a certain drug had caused infertility in women. I had to depose a number of plaintiffs who had been unable to bear children, and ask them intensely personal questions about their physical and sexual health in order to better ascertain the strength of their claims. I did my very best to handle the situation like a professional, but often the deponents would (understandably) become highly emotional during questioning. For me, an unmarried twenty-something just a few years out of law school, it was an awkward experience. Their reactions would stick with me when I went home at night.

From time to time I would ask my friends who worked as attorneys in the criminal justice system–who spent their days knee-deep in murders, sexual assaults, and various other horrible acts–how they could block those images away when they went home at night. It wasn’t easy at all, they admitted, but somehow they managed. One had to find a way to compartmentalize work and home, for one’s own mental health. And often those images and stories did haunt them at home, as much as in the workplace.

A lengthy story out of Australia keenly illustrates that judges are equally susceptible to these challenges. Six judges in Victoria talked to the Sydney Morning Herald about judicial mental health, including the judges’ environment, coping mechanisms, and (occasionally tragic) responses. As one judge put it:

“It’s been hidden, unspoken, unacknowledged and surrounded by taboo and shame for a long time,” she says. “There’s this sort of almost irreconcilable conflict between being an impartial decision-maker and being a human being who responds in a human way to what we’re doing.

“Because we’ve got to be tough [and] impartial, there’s been a concern about ‘Are you not intellectually rational enough to do the job, or are you too weak as a person if you’re responding on a personal level to other people’s trauma?’ So [there’s] the shame of saying, ‘I’m struggling, I’m finding this hard … I’m finding it hard to reconcile the human part of me with my impassive, impartial demeanour.'”

An important read for anyone involved in the administration of justice.

 

Nevada, low on federal judges, faces growing caseload

One persistent theme on this blog is that courts are entirely dependent on other entities for their judicial staffing, and must scramble when those entities are not responsive to those staffing needs. This article offers yet another data point, discussing the ongoing federal judicial vacancies in Nevada, and the concomitant growth of the federal caseload in that jurisdiction.

Not all courthouses are the same

Some are glorious temples to the administration of justice. Others are originally built as school buildings, retrofitted to house courtrooms and judges’ chambers, and must combat mold, crumbling walls, and occasional gunfire. The Tampa Bay Times offers an insightful report on the challenges faced by Florida’s 2d District Court of Appeal in their substandard building, and the resource allocation issues underlying their request for new quarters.