Amid Supreme Court Impeachments, West Virginia Voters Weaken Judges' Power

The state where lawmakers put every justice on trial this year is also the only state where the legislature has no control over the judicial budget. Voters changed that on Tuesday.
by | November 6, 2018
West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Beth Walker, right, and her attorney, Mike Hissam, address reporters after state senators voted against impeaching her. (AP/John Raby)

SPEED READ:

  • West Virginia is the only state where the legislature has no say over the judicial budget.
  • The constitutional amendment approved by voters gives the legislature some control over it.
  • The proposal came at a time when state lawmakers have put every state Supreme Court justice on trial for impeachment -- some for misusing funds.
 

West Virginia politics has been roiled this fall by the impeachment trials of all the sitting justices on the state Supreme Court. The events overshadowed a ballot measure meant to address the underlying issue that led to the trials -- how the judiciary spends its funds. Still, the constitutional amendment easily passed.

The measure gives the legislature more control over the judicial budget. Now, any part of the court system's budget could be cut or eliminated by lawmakers, so long as the overall judicial budget is at least 85 percent as large as it had been the prior fiscal year. West Virginia had been the only state where the legislature had no say over it.

The changes to judicial funding drew much less media coverage or voter interest than the ongoing impeachment drama, or another amendment on the state ballot regarding abortion. "Most of the attention seems to be on the impeachment trials themselves, not on structural fixes to the perceived problems," Scott Crichlow, a political scientist at West Virginia University, said in early October.

Last month, the state Senate reprimanded Justice Beth Walker but voted to let her keep her seat on the bench, following a two-day impeachment trial. That same day, a jury was selected in the criminal trial of suspended Justice Allen Loughly, who faces 22 federal charges, including mail fraud, obstruction of justice and making a false statement.

In August, the West Virginia House voted to impeach Loughry, Walker and two other justices, charging them with failure to carry out their duties. Several justices were charged with misuse of funds on office renovations, salaries or vehicles and computers. A fifth justice, Menis Ketchum, had stepped down in the face of a federal indictment. He pleaded guilty in August to misusing public funds.

Despite the criminal complaints, Democrats in West Virginia accused Republicans of orchestrating a "power grab" and trying to push out justices elected by Democrats to allow GOP Gov. Jim Justice to stack the bench. The impeachment push came months after allegations against the justices had surfaced, leading Democrats to argue that Republican legislators had stalled until a deadline passed that would have allowed voters to fill vacancies through special elections in November. Justice Robin Davis resigned ahead of the impeachment vote to allow voters to pick her successor.

In August, the governor appointed state House Speaker Tim Armstead and Congressman Evan Jenkins to fill the Davis and Jenkins seats on an interim basis. Twenty candidates are seeking the two positions on the November ballot.

Republican state Sen. Greg Boso, a sponsor of the judicial funding measure on the ballot, says few people realized until the current controversies that the legislature could not amend that budget. But the issue of how justices spend their money has certainly gotten lots of attention lately, which made him confident that voters would respond favorably to a measure meant to provide greater oversight and control.

"I have seen no one that is opposing the measure," he said before the election. "To be honest with you, I haven't talked to anybody who is not going to vote for the measure."

Some court officials complained that it violates the principle of separation between the branches, but there was no organized campaign to oppose it.

The fact that there was so much talk in the air about judicial corruption made the measure almost certain to pass, says John Kilwein, another West Virginia University political scientist. "The voters will say, 'Those judges are all corrupt, so we should do this,'" Kilwein said ahead of the vote. "The vote will tip in its favor because of this."

For results of the most important ballot measures, click here.