Give Lawmakers More Authority Over Court Budget

Earlier this year, there was some pretty disturbing news that came out of Charleston relating to our state’s Supreme Court of Appeals. An investigation by a local news station had discovered an outrageous amount of taxpayer dollars had been spent to renovate the private offices of the five Supreme Court Justices. Millions of dollars, even.

An $8,000 office chair. Hallway carpeting that cost more than $58,000. A coffee table with a $2,560 price tag. And, of course, the most infamous item of them all — the $32,000 couch.

All in all, more than $3.7 million alone was spent to renovate offices in “The People’s House” that by and large, “the people” will never see.

In the days following those stories, several of us in the Legislature began getting messages from our constituents asking — rather, telling — us to do something about this. It was infuriating to them, rightly so, that in a state where resources are tight and our budget picture has been dire of late that people would even consider spending millions of taxpayer dollars on curtains, chairs, and floor decorations.

We knew two things immediately: that this out-of-control, unchecked spending by the Supreme Court had to be stopped; and, it was going to take the help of the state’s voters to do it.

West Virginia’s Supreme Court has a pretty unique deal. Every year, the court submits its appropriation request in the budget, and that’s where it ends. While the Legislature could give the court additional money on top of their request, they can’t give them any less. In fact, it says right in our state’s Constitution, “The Legislature shall not amend the budget bill so as to create a deficit but may amend the bill by increasing or decreasing any item therein: Provided, That no item relating to the judiciary shall be decreased …”

So, what does that mean? In short, the court could buy a dozen $32,000 couches and there really isn’t anything the Legislature could do about it.

The good news is that this week, the Senate completed the first steps toward changing that for good. The Judicial Budget Oversight Amendment, which was reported to the Senate floor on Friday, will give our state’s voters the opportunity to make someone accountable for the Supreme Court’s budget. If passed by both the Senate and House of Delegates, we will give voters the opportunity to decide if they want to place their trust into the hands of the Legislature to be stewards of their dollars, or if they are fine with the status quo.

Placing the Supreme Court’s budget under legislative oversight will help ensure that Finance Committees of both Republican and Democratic members get the chance to thoroughly vet the court’s annual request, not simply rubber stamp it. This year, the court submitted a request for about $140 million. Approved. End of story. Sure, we could ask questions about individual items in their request, but we had absolutely no authority to change things if we disagreed with the expense.

And, honestly, most of my fellow lawmakers understand and appreciate the reasoning behind an independent judiciary budget. It insulates the court from ever having the concern in the back of their minds that a decision they make could mean a million dollars cut from their line by an angry Legislature who doesn’t like their interpretation. It’s not an unreasonable concession to give them some protection from that risk, which our amendment does. Should this be put into the Constitution, it would make sure to provide that the Legislature could not increase or decrease the court’s budget based on any ruling, order, or decision. That sounds fair to me.

For the previous three sessions, we have been focused on bringing West Virginia into line with the rest of the country in every area possible, and the fact of the matter is, nearly every other state in the country has oversight of their court’s budget. The taxpayers of this state demanded this accountability for their dollars, and they rightly deserve it. It’s well past time their money goes toward buying their own rugs — not a Supreme Court Justice’s.

Ferns is majority leader of the West Virginia State Senate. He represents the First Senate District. A licensed physical therapist, he is owner of The Ryan Ferns Healthplex Inc. in Benwood.