Thoughts on Canterbury’s Tales

It was anticipated that Thursday’s testimony by Steve Canterbury, former administrator for the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, before the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment hearing would be a day for popcorn munching.

While Canterbury, fired by then-Chief Justice Allen Loughry, had many quotable lines that day, I don’t think he told us much in the way of new information.

I was honestly quite surprised that Canterbury had the leeway he had when testifying. He was asked to keep his answers strictly to the questions asked, and once was asked by Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer, to stay on topic. But Canterbury did veer more into areas of speculation.

Keep in mind, Canterbury is not a saint in this instance. He is a disgruntled ex-employee, a person with an ax to grind, someone who most know is the one who went to Charleston media back in the fall to spill the beans on Loughry’s spending.

That’s OK, because that’s how media get sources sometimes. I just get the impression that if he still had his job today, we wouldn’t know about any of these misuses of taxpayer dollars. The public could have used a whistleblower a long time ago on court spending.

As I’ve said before, this was a culture of ego and extravagance at the high court. I have no idea when it started or how far back it goes, but I refuse to believe that no one was immune. There is still a federal investigation, and it might be looking at past administrators as well as justices.

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The Judicial Investigation Commission released letters last week clearing justices Margaret Workman, Robin Davis and Beth Walker of wrongdoing on several judicial ethics complaints. I found the timing quite interesting.

The three things the letters focused on — the court’s expensive working lunches from local gourmet restaurants, Justice Robin Davis’ parties at her home for circuit court judges paid for partially by taxpayers, and Justice Margaret Workman’s hiring of campaign staff as paid court employees — all came up in questioning by the committee over the past few weeks.

Something to keep in mind, but members of the JIC are circuit court judges appointed by the Supreme Court itself. The dropped complaints might not be violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct, but it certainly doesn’t mean they’re not impeachable offenses. Whether they should be removed from office is a decision for the Legislature, but they could always be censured.

I suspect we’ll see some substantive reforms in spending policies if voters approve giving the Legislature the power to review and amend the court’s budget.

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Friday was Justice Menis Ketchum’s last day on the court. He announced his resignation a few weeks ago just before the House Judiciary Committee started its impeachment hearings.

After several news stories and legislative audits put the spotlight on Ketchum’s use of state vehicles for personal use, Ketchum did the right things. He apologized, he reimbursed the taxpayers, he amended his tax forms and he stepped down from the bench. It doesn’t mean he is off the hook for any current or future investigations.

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Now, Gov. Jim Justice will have to appoint a new justice to replace Ketchum. The Judicial Vacancy Advisory Commission will provide some guidance, but it’s ultimately up to the Lewisburg resident to make the choice.

It also means that there will be a special election in November alongside the general election for the empty seat. Whoever wins will have to do it all over again in 2020, as that is when Ketchum’s term ends.

Who has interest in the vacated seat? House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, has expressed interest in a future run for Supreme Court, which is why he recused himself from sitting as speaker during the special session on Supreme Court impeachment. But whether he wants to jump in early I have no idea.

Robert Schwartz, an attorney with Harvit & Schwartz in Charleston, has filed precandidacy paperwork to run for the Supreme Court. Precandidacy allows Schwartz to raise money and test the waters. I don’t know much about him, but he was named one of the “Top 100 Lawyers in West Virginia” by the National Trial Lawyers Association.

Another name I’m hearing is 23rd Circuit Judge Chris Wilkes, whose circuit contains Morgan, Berkeley and Jefferson counties. I’m no political historian, but I can’t think of a recent justice from the Eastern Panhandle. It’s one of the fastest growing parts of the state, and it makes sense for the court to be diverse geographically.

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Switching topics, the Blue Ribbon Commission on Four-Year Higher Education met Friday in Bridgeport. You wouldn’t have known that beforehand though unless you check the Secretary of State’s list of public meetings.

I recall, when asked at a press conference if the commission was going to be transparent, that Justice said it would be. I got a lot of press releases for his random trips around the state. I didn’t see anything from the governor on this meeting until the governor’s office sent out his charge to the committee. That didn’t hit my inbox until 10:19 a.m. Friday morning.

I expected more fanfare leading up to this meeting.

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