Ex-Delegate Isaac Sponaugle Intends To Renew Residency Lawsuit Against Gov. Jim Justice
CHARLESTON — More than seven months after the matter was settled, an attorney and former lawmaker alleges that Gov. Jim Justice is still not abiding by the West Virginia Constitution by residing in Charleston.
Pendleton County attorney Isaac Sponaugle, a former Democratic member of the House of Delegates and candidate for Attorney General, sent Justice a letter Wednesday announcing his intent to file a lawsuit in 30 days against the governor. State law requires a 30-day notice before filing suit against the state.
According to a dismissal order issued March 1 in Kanawha County Court, Justice agreed to “reside” in Charleston as defined by an opinion issued by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals last November. Justice also agreed to pay $65,000 in Sponaugle’s legal fees to settle the case.
The state Constitution requires the governor, secretary of state, auditor, treasurer, commissioner of agriculture and attorney general to reside at the seat of government in Charleston.
“You agreed to resolve the constitutional residency requirement earlier this year,” Sponaugle wrote. “From numerous and consistent news reports, since we entered into the agreement, you have disregarded the agreement. You can bring your actions within conformity of the agreement within the next 30 days, or we will go back to court to resolve this matter.”
In a Nov. 20, 2020, opinion, the state Supreme Court denied a motion for a writ of prohibition sought by Justice attorneys Mike Carey and George Terwilliger after a Kanawha County judge ruled against a motion to dismiss a writ of mandamus case brought by Sponaugle asking the court to require Justice to follow the Constitution and live in Charleston.
In that opinion, Chief Justice Evan Jenkins defined “reside” as “to live, primarily, at the seat of government; and requires that the executive official’s principal place of physical presence is the seat of government for the duration of his or her term of office.”
“The terms of the agreement were that you intended to ‘reside’ in Charleston consistent with the definition ‘reside’ in the opinion issued by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals,” Sponaugle wrote. “It is your choice on how this will proceed, but you will reside at the seat of government, either voluntarily or involuntarily, as long as you remain Governor of the State of West Virginia.
Justice is nearly one year into his second term as governor, winning re-election by a landslide in November 2020. Carey and attorney Steve Ruby, husband of state Department of Tourism Secretary Chelsea Ruby, cited Justice’s accomplishments as governor, including annual budget surpluses, adding $1 billion to the rainy day fund, the Roads to Prosperity program, and investments in tourism as proof that Justice is on the job.
“We were disappointed to see Mr. Sponaugle grasping for media attention by trying to revive this pointless case, which he already took $65,000 in state money for settling once. It’s simply out of touch with the objective facts of Governor Justice’s accomplishments, which exceed those of any administration in memory,” Carey and Ruby said in a statement Thursday.
“The people of West Virginia know exactly how hard Governor Justice works and how much he’s accomplished for the state,” Carey and Ruby continued. “They know he’s on the job for them every day, either in Charleston or out among the 99 percent of West Virginians who don’t live in the capital.”
While appearing in Charleston as many as three days a week to give COVID-19 briefings, Justice commutes to Charleston from his home in Lewisburg in Greenbrier County — a two-hour journey to the State Capitol Building. Justice has been known to have the state airplane pick him up at the Greenbrier County Airport to take him around the state for events, such as awarding prizes in the “Do It for Babydog” COVID-19 vaccine incentive lottery.
Justice is also the head coach of the Greenbrier East High School girls’ basketball team and is fighting to return as Greenbrier East boys’ basketball team head coach. WV MetroNews reported this week that Justice filed a grievance after the Greenbrier County Board of Education voted against hiring Justice to coach the Greenbrier East boys’ team.