Keeping an Eye On W.Va. Courts

Members of the West Virginia Supreme Court merit high praise for their reaction to the scandal that removed three of the five justices last year. As Chief Justice Elizabeth Walker told legislators this week, new safeguards against waste and corruption have been established.

Unfortunately, no amount of new rules can eliminate the root causes of last year’s upheaval –devious dishonesty and arrogance.

Three justices resigned last year. Two of them, Menis Ketchum and Allen Loughry, stepped down as a result of federal criminal charges against them. One, Robin Davis, left insisting legislators were out to get her for partisan purposes.

They were not. The anger of many lawmakers at Davis reflected their constituents’ fury over reports the justice had spent about $500,000 — more than many West Virginians will earn in a lifetime — on remodeling her office. That was arrogant disregard for responsible use of taxpayers’ money.

Loughry and Ketchum committed crimes by misusing state property.

All five justices attended a hearing Monday at which Walker explained court reforms. She and Justice Margaret Workman are the only two holdovers from the previous court. The three cited above have been replaced by new Justices Tim Armstead, Evan Jenkins and John Hutchison.

New policies on use of state property, including vehicles, have been put in place and will be enforced, Walker testified. The court’s 19 vehicles now are being handled by the state Fleet Management system.

All court property has been inventoried and recorded on the state’s wvOASIS financial management system. New policies on use of computers and other property are being developed.

Good.

In addition to what Walker mentioned, another safeguard has been put in place — by West Virginia voters. Last fall, they agreed the court system’s finances should fall under at least some control of the state Legislature. That will give lawmakers the authority to pursue needed oversight of court spending.

But it needs to be recognized that, in the cases of Ketchum and Loughry, what they did already was prohibited in writing — by federal law. That did not stop them from trying to get away with ripping off taxpayers.

There is nothing Walker, Workman, Armstead, Jenkins and Hutchison can do to ensure everyone in the justice system, from magistrate offices on up to the high court itself, is honest, of course.

Good for the existing state Supreme Court for doing what it can to make corruption and waste more difficult. Still, what some of their immediate predecessors did demonstrates the need for vigorous, continuing scrutiny of the court system.

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