HOW FORTUNATE ARE WE?
(Posted August 14, 2018) Life here in the Commonwealth is good. It’s not perfect; but all things considered, I’d rather be here than anywhere else.
Take our neighbor to the west, for example. I’ve enjoyed my visits to what they call West-By-God Virginia. Whether it’s fly fishing in Grant County, whitewater rafting in the middle of the state, or a trip to the stately Green-briah, West Virginia has plenty to offer. But yesterday’s news out of Charleston underscores my sense that life here is so very much better than it is over there.
Yesterday, the West Virginia House of Delegates passed articles of impeachment against all remaining members of the state supreme court. I say “all remaining members” because one justice has already resigned and has pleaded guilty to a federal wire-fraud charge; another has been suspended in the wake of a 23-count federal indictment. The legislature decided to go ahead and clean house by impeaching the other three, too.
The primary origin of the impeachments is sordid: overspending on renovations to judicial chambers. The four impeached justices spent about $1 million in upgrading their judicial digs. I read yesterday that one of them had his floor inlaid with custom-cut wood in the shape of the state, with different colors for each county.
(Now, I like maps. The Boss tells people that I sleep with an atlas under my pillow. That’s a gross exaggeration; it’s actually on the bedside table. But for my purposes, I’m happy to rely on an old-fashioned folding map, instead of looking at the floor.)
Back to our story. In West Virginia, as in many other states, the voters choose the supreme court justices. The admittedly political process here in the Old Dominion is, in comparison, a model of stability. The concept of judges’ campaigning for votes, appealing to John Q. Citizen with whatever message the voter will like, is stomach-churning to me. But it’s normal in 22 states across the nation.
The current Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia has a mix of Democrats and Republicans. But if they’re removed from office – remember, an impeachment is just an accusation, and the justices will get a trial in the state senate – the governor will get to appoint replacement justices. There’s an interesting dynamic there, too: Governor Jim Justice was elected as a Democrat, but about six months after taking office, he switched to the Republican Party. That means that a Republican governor will, if he chooses, be able to appoint all Republicans to fill the court until the next judicial election, which I believe is in two years.
Democratic politicians have understandably described the impeachment proceedings as a power grab; Republicans in the House insist that they’re just doing what’s necessary to address malfeasance in office. The court’s September session begins in 22 days, and I seriously doubt that these impeachment proceedings will conclude by then. Speaking as an appellate advocate, how do you act when your entire court is facing removal from office? What if you argue the case and the state senate empties the court before an opinion comes down? Yeesh.
West Virginia isn’t alone; about three years ago, the Kansas legislature passed an act on judicial selection that contained a scary provision. It said that if the Kansas Supreme Court declared the act unconstitutional, the judicial branch of government would be defunded. (The court went ahead and struck down the law, and the legislature backed down.)
And that brings us back to where we started: Life here in the Commonwealth is wonderful, especially when compared with how it’s unfolding elsewhere.
Update 3:55 p.m.: The Wall Street Journal is reporting that one of the Democratic justices has resigned in protest of what she deems a hyper-partisan “disaster for the rule of law.” She did so just before the filing deadline for this November’s election, presumably to permit the voters, rather than he governor, to select her successor.