A COURT IN CHAOS
If there was ever a question of whether West Virginia needs an intermediate appellate court, like the vast majority of other states, that was resolved this year, as the state’s high court plunged into turmoil leaving the availability of appellate review uncertain.
In an unprecedented move, West Virginia lawmakers voted to recommend the
impeachment of all sitting members of the state’s highest court. West Virginia’s Supreme Court of Appeals is comprised of five justices, each elected to 12-year terms. The justices were charged with “unnecessary and lavish” spending of taxpayer dollars, maladministration, corruption and neglect of duty.
The Court began to unravel in late June when Justice Allen Loughry was suspended without pay following a federal indictment that includes charges that he spent $363,000 to remodel his office, placed a historic desk in his home, and used a state vehicle for personal use. In October, he was convicted of 11 of 22 federal charges against him. Justice Loughry resigned in November, one day before his impeachment trial was scheduled to begin.
Justice Menis Ketchum resigned from the court in late July, and subsequently plead guilty to a single count of wire fraud relating to his private use of state vehicles, following a federal investigation. Justice Robin Jean Davis resigned following the Houses’ vote of impeachment in mid-August, stating that she wanted to “free up her seat” for the upcoming elections.
The Senate rejected a single Article of Impeachment against Justice Beth Walker by a 32-1 vote in early October, issuing instead a reprimand.
Soon after, the Supreme Court of Appeals, temporarily populated with lower court judges, blocked the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Margaret Workman, finding the Senate had not provided the justice with due process and had improperly considered issues that only the judiciary can oversee.
Later that month, Justice Walker was selected by the other members of the court as its new chief justice.
Meanwhile, Governor Jim Justice appointed U.S. Representative Evan Jenkins, and previous House of Delegates Speaker Tim Armstead, to serve as interim Justices on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals in late August, filling the vacancies created by the resignation of Justices Ketchum and Davis. Jenkins and Armstead were formally elected to the court by voters in the 2018 November election.
The future is uncertain for the Supreme Court of Appeals, as the composition of the court will be dramatically different in 2019. West Virginia is one of only nine states in the country that does not have an intermediate appellate court. Therefore, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals is the only appellate court in the state, making it that much more important for the court to provide balance and fairness.
Legislation to establish an intermediate appellate court has repeatedly fallen short of enactment. A 2018 proposal passed the Senate by a 23-11 vote, but the measure stalled in the House. Although most West Virginians support establishing an intermediate appellate court, some members of the state’s high court and the plaintiffs’ bar have opposed doing so. The main sticking point was the cost of the new court for the state, which, of course, is ironic given the allegations regarding the justice’s own wasteful spending. Legislative leaders viewed the high court’s estimate of establishing an intermediate appellate court as “comical.”
Now some of the justices that opposed the change, including Justices Davis and Ketchum and are gone, and Justice Workman is hanging on by a thread. After the events of 2018, the need for an intermediate appellate court has never been so obvious.