Betrayal of Trust at Heart of Impeachment Process

It is unclear what is to become of the sitting justices of the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia, but the damage has already been done. With the recent filing of articles of impeachment, West Virginia is experiencing an erosion — nay, destruction — of trust in a branch of government charged with the very arbitration of the just and the unjust.

One can say with near certainty that the ramifications of injudicious justices will be far-reaching and deep, but such damage may yet — and forever — be imperceptible. A well-functioning democratic government is dependent on the trust of its citizens, because those citizens confer government with its lifeblood — legitimacy. Trust in even the most hallowed institutions can be a fragile, fleeting thing — decades to build and minutes to destroy.

Gone in the blink of an eye … or the swipe of a card.

Now, it would be absurd to predict that West Virginia will slide into despotism or a type of soft tyranny because of lax purchasing-card policies or glaucomic oversight of spending. However, it would not be absurd to imagine West Virginia becoming a sort of banana republic, albeit an Americanized, somewhat well-functioning, banana republic.

What most typifies a banana republic? Well, in a way, it is the reality — or at least the perception — that there are two sets of rules: one set for the well-connected political or economic elite and another set for those without the means or social networks to buy or elect themselves into the former group. This cleavage between two groups of people — real or perceived — can be a very dangerous thing in any form of government. It breeds resentment, distrust, and a belief that laws are arbitrary, capricious, and used to penalize some and benefit well-connected others.

It is unlikely in a modern, wealthy society that such distrust and resentment will ever lead to riots or revolutions, but it will create a sort of miasma — which, unfortunately for West Virginia, has been in the air for generations — that the system is rigged against the little guy.

Want to create a better life for you and your family? Better head elsewhere — you don’t have to right connections. Know someone wealthy or successful? They probably know someone in Charleston that gave them a cocktail-party introduction to the right power-broker. Belief in the good ol’ boys’ club reverberates deeply in the mountains.

This is how polities decline. This is how economies decline.

This is how a state becomes, and stays, a backwater.

Sadly, this is a familiar tune to the people of West Virginia. One might be forgiven for being lulled into believing that cronyism in West Virginia is a thing of past, something a grandfather might mention on the front porch.

Alas, that’s a luxury enjoyed only by the ignorant.

The real scandal isn’t about an expensive couch, opulent flooring, or staff lunches. It’s about the schism between “them” and “us.” Rules for some; loopholes for others. It is a fundamental betrayal that weakens the bedrock of democracy and citizen government — taxpayer money, earned through blood, sweat, and sore backs becomes the plaything of an entitled few.

Garrett Ballengee is the executive director of the Cardinal Institute for WV Policy, a nonprofit research organization in Charleston.

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