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As 1 Supreme Court Justice Survives Impeachment in West Virginia, Others Face Trial

After deliberating behind closed doors for just under 2 hours, 20 minutes Tuesday afternoon, the West Virginia Senate soundly rejected removing Supreme Court Justice Beth Walker from office for maladministration.

By Phil Kabler

After deliberating behind closed doors for just under 2 hours, 20 minutes Tuesday afternoon, the West Virginia Senate soundly rejected removing Supreme Court Justice Beth Walker from office for maladministration.

On a 32-1 vote shortly after 1 p.m., the Senate rejected the House of Delegates' article of impeachment against Walker. Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, was the lone "yes" vote, with Sen. Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, absent.

Afterward, Walker said she is relieved and that she looks forward to getting back to the work of the court, including implementing spending policies to correct past excesses by the state's highest court.

"I respect everyone in the House. I respect everyone in the Senate. I'm very grateful," said Walker, who, in testimony Monday admitted to making mistakes and expressed regret for not more aggressively challenging excessive spending practices by the court.

She turned questions about the Senate verdict over to her attorney, Michael Hissam.

"We think the Senate listened to the facts that we asked them to," Hissam said. "They were a fair body, they were just and they handled this the way it is supposed to be in the constitution."

After a half-hour recess, the Senate originated and adopted by voice vote a resolution to censure and publicly reprimand Walker.

Walker was the first of four current and former justices to be tried on articles of impeachment by the Senate.

Tuesday afternoon, Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said the Senate will proceed with impeachment trials against suspended Justice Allen Loughry, whose criminal trial on a 25-count federal indictment began Tuesday, as well as Chief Justice Margaret Workman, and retired justice Robin Davis, pending any court action to intervene.

Carmichael said Tuesday's verdict could have some bearing on those cases, to the extent that the House of Delegates cited all four justices under the maladministration article, the only article of impeachment against Walker.

In closing arguments Tuesday morning, Hissam said House managers had failed to make the case that Walker had committed impeachable offenses.

Hissam said Walker, in her first months on the court, had made mistakes and shown poor judgment in matters such as partaking in taxpayer-funded working lunches, but had not been involved in the more serious offenses cited in the articles of impeachment against the other justices.

"Did she make mistakes? She told you she did," Hissam said.

"Think about your first nine months on any job," he said. "She was trying to learn the job. She was trying to right the ship."

Hissam noted that House managers had subpoenaed but, not called, former justice Brent Benjamin to testify Tuesday, and also had not called former court administrators Steve Canterbury or Gary Johnson to testify against Walker.

"You can only draw the conclusion they didn't have any fire to bring against Beth Walker," Hissam said.

House Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer, one of the House managers, compared Walker's defense to his golf game, of which he said, because of his lack of golfing experience, he frequently asks for "mulligans" to redo shots.

"How many mulligans do you think the people you represent think she deserves?" Shott asked the Senate.

Shott questioned whether public confidence in the Supreme Court could be restored by allowing Walker to complete the remaining 10 years of her term.

"If keeping her on the bench for 10 more years will restore trust, then, by all means, reject these articles of impeachment," he said.

The only witness Tuesday, the second day of the impeachment trial, was Mike McKown, who became a deputy state auditor in July after serving nearly 12 years as director of the state Budget Office.

McKown testified about a period, from April 2013 to November 2017, when state tax collection fell below projections every month, forcing cuts in government spending, including a $59 million mid-year budget cut that was in effect when Walker took office in January 2017.

He said that, from the 2014-15 fiscal year through the 2017-18 fiscal year, virtually every state agency, along with public education and higher education, sustained funding cuts, while the Supreme Court budget -- which is not controlled by the Legislature -- grew by 7.5 percent.

Shott argued that, in the midst of the state budget crisis, Walker had partaken in lavish and excessive spending, including a $130,000 renovation of a court office that had been renovated just six years earlier, a $10,000 payment to have attorney Barbara Allen "ghostwrite" a court opinion, as well as the free lunches, for which Walker reimbursed the court only after the practice became public.

Hissam argued that Walker had not been involved in some of the more serious allegations in the impeachment charges against the four justices, including misuse of state vehicles for private gain, use of state property to establish home offices and misuse of state purchasing cards.

He said Walker's attempts to address excesses of the court, including, at one point, seeking to be elected as chief justice, were rebuffed by the other justices because of her lack of experience on the court.

Hissam said of the Supreme Court, "This was more like a dysfunctional family."

Unlike other justices, who are challenging the propriety of the impeachment proceedings, Hissam said of Walker, "She has embraced this process. She faced this body. She told you she was wrong."

In her testimony Monday, Walker apologized multiple times for not doing more to address court spending practices that concerned her.

"I want to apologize for you being here," Walker told the Senate on Monday. "I regret so much the mistakes I made, and I'm sorry. I need to apologize to the taxpayers and you ... . I have learned from my mistakes, you can rest assured."

(c)2018 The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, W.Va.)

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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