Justices Play by Their Own Rules
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Many West Virginia taxpayers probably could come up with only three after seeing pictures taken inside the state Supreme Court’s offices:
That cost $32,000?
Did anyone on the court care that they spent more on one piece of furniture than many West Virginians earn in a year? Are the justices that arrogant?
That is not an unreasonable question. They seem to think ethics rules other public officials must obey don’t apply to them. Really.
And at least some of them apparently believe state laws are made to be circumvented.
Before we get to the couch, let’s talk about ethics rules.
It has been revealed that during 2016 and 2017, our taxpayer dollars were used to buy $19,324 in meals delivered to the court, for justices and other court employees. State Auditor John McCuskey questioned that, noting ethics rules prohibit use of public money to buy meals for employees at their workplaces.
Barbara Allen, the court’s interim administrative director, replied in a letter that state Ethics Commission opinions, “though instructive, do not apply to the judicial branch of government.” She added that the state Judicial Investigation Commission had no problem with the meal purchases.
Then there is the matter of senior-status (retired) circuit court judges. The Supreme Court frequently calls them back for temporary duty.
A state law is aimed at keeping such retired judges from earning more than active, full-time jurists. The statute caps their annual “per-diem” pay for temporary work, plus the amounts they receive from state pensions, at $126,000 (the salary for active circuit judges).
But some justices approved paying senior status judges more, by placing them under contract. That way, it was explained, the law’s “per-diem” and “retirement” provisions didn’t apply.
On Monday, members of a legislative committee investigating the high court toured the offices of Justices Allen Loughry, Robin Davis, Elizabeth Walker and Margaret Workman.
Among the expensive items the lawmakers saw was the infamous $32,000 couch purchased for Loughry’s office as part of a court remodeling project that topped $1.5 million.
We published a picture of the couch, a modern-style modular unit in blue-gray material. We have carried many advertisements with similar furniture carried by local stores, usually in the $750-$1,500 range.
I suspect many who viewed the picture were puzzled. How does one spend $32,000 on that?
After the tour, committee members went back to their chamber and discussed whether to recommend any of the justices be impeached.
For a time, it appeared the panel was focusing on Loughry, who faces nearly two dozen federal criminal charges. But on Tuesday, the committee delivered a bombshell, approving articles of impeachment against all four justices.
If the full House of Delegates approves the articles, the state Senate will hold what will amount to a trial on them. That could lead to removal of all four justices (former Justice Menis Ketchum already has resigned).
Justices and some on their staff insist the separation of powers doctrine enshrined in both the U.S. and state constitutions gives the court full authority over its spending.
But the lavish modeling project, combined with the court’s attitude toward ethics and the action in circumventing the law on senior status judges’ pay, tells a different story.
It is not one of defending constitutional principles.
It is one of arrogance.
On the Nov. 6 election ballot in our state is a proposed constitutional amendment. It would give the Legislature more control over court spending. When you go to the polls, visualize the $32,000 couch.
And reflect that justices of our Supreme Court think their branch of government can make its own rules.
Myer can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.