It Is the Constitution, After All

How often has W.Va. Gov. Jim Justice been needed — really needed — in Charleston while he was at home in Lewisburg? That’s the question Kanawha County Circuit Judge Charles King ought to be asking.

King has the unenviable task of trying to sort out a lawsuit filed against Justice by House of Delegates member Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton. Sponaugle wants King to order Justice to reside in the governor’s mansion on the Capitol grounds in Charleston.

In many ways, Justice is — how to say this diplomatically? — unconventional. One of them is that he refuses to reside full time in the mansion. Most days, he commutes to and from work. His duties as coach of the Greenbrier East girls’ basketball team may have something to do with that.

Justice insists he works very hard, can be reached at any time, and his absences from Charleston don’t do any harm. When he needs to be at the Capitol, he is, the governor says.

Fine, except for one thing: The West Virginia Constitution states unambiguously that the governor and five other executive branch officers “shall reside at the seat of government during their terms of office …”

“It’s an unequivocal constitutional duty,” Sponaugle told King this week in court.

As we have reported, King is skeptical about the lawsuit. “How many days and nights am I to require him to live here, regardless of what he has to do?” the judge asked. “Is it OK if he goes to bed at 11 and gets up at 7 and goes to Lewisburg?”

King asked how he would enforce any order. “You want me to follow him around the rest of his term?”

Sponaugle replied the judge could order Justice to reside at the manion, then hold him in contempt of court if he does not comply.

Who proves he hasn’t complied? Does the Legislature erect a video camera outside the governor’s mansion, monitor it for a couple of weeks, then send a time and date-stamped copy to King?

Come on. This would border on the absurd, but for one thing we’ll get back to later.

It was important in 1872, when the constitution was ratified, for the governor to live in Charleston. It could take a whole day to ride a horse from Lewisburg to Charleston. Long-distance communication was by telegraph. Now we have cellphones, radios, the internet and high-speed highways. Lots of people “telecommute” from home to jobs elsewhere. Is it really important for the governor to be living just across the lawn from where legislators meet?

Of course not.

Sponaugle’s case would be stronger if he could hand King a list of situations in which Justice’s absence from Charleston created problems, or even inconvenienced lawmakers. There may have been a few such cases, but my guess is they were few and far between, or we’d have heard more about them.

What happens to the lawsuit may turn on a technicality. Justice’s lawyers contend Sponaugle failed to provide the 30 days’ notice of his lawsuit required by law. If the action is thrown out on those grounds, it will be a shame.

That is so because Sponaugle actually has a good point: To my knowledge, every governor before Justice complied with the residency requirement in the constitution. Rightly or wrongly, it is a mandate in West Virginia’s most basic rule of law.

Much of our modern communications ability, save for cellphones and the internet, has existed for generations. Yet no one suggested altering the residency requirement.

So the governor is in violation.

Let’s not get too carried away. Some would argue a logical concern is whether Justice, willing to disobey that part of the constitution, can be trusted to comply with the rest. I’m not convinced one can equivocate where he lays his head at night to, say, whether he is likely to order an agency to spend more than lawmakers appropriate.

Still, it is our state constitution. What happens when, pointing to Justice’s disregard for part of it, the Legislature violates some other section?

Myer can be reached at: