W.Va Surpeme Court Has a Shakeup

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- One West Virginia Supreme Court justice has survived an impeachment scare. Another could face more serious consequences than the potential loss of his seat.

Beth Walker will remain in office after state senators rejected an impeachment article against her after a two-day trial. Tuesday's 32-1 vote with one senator absent came the same day a federal jury was seated in the criminal trial of suspended Justice Allen Loughry. Opening statements in that trial are scheduled Wednesday.

"I'm looking forward to going back to work as a justice," Walker said.

A two-thirds majority would have been required to remove Walker, whose 12-year term expires in 2028. Senators later adopted a resolution by voice vote to issue a public reprimand of Walker.

She was accused of abusing her authority. The impeachment charge stated Walker and other justices failed to control office expenses and maintain policies over matters such as working lunches and the use of state vehicles and office computers at home.

The impeachments of Walker, Loughry and justices Margaret Workman and Robin Davis stemmed from questions involving lavish renovations to the justices' offices. Individual office spending included $503,000 by Davis, $367,000 by Loughry, $131,000 by Walker and $113,000 by Workman. Those questions evolved into accusations of corruption, incompetence and neglect of duty.

It has been a time of midyear budget cuts in recent years. The Legislature's budget dropped 4.1 percent from fiscal 2015 through fiscal 2018, while the state Supreme Court received a 7.5 percent budget increase over the period.

A proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot would give the Legislature more budgetary control over the judiciary. Currently the Supreme Court sets and controls its own budget. Opponents say that proposal would infringe on the courts' independence.

Walker, who supports the proposed amendment, vowed Tuesday, "I'm going to do everything I can to implement a whole lot of cuts."

The House previously chose not to impeach Walker for her office renovations. House judiciary chairman John Shott had worked out a settlement agreement to have Walker's impeachment charge dropped before the Senate rejected the offer last month.

"The outcome was the same," said Senate Democratic leader Roman Prezioso. "The argument can be made, I mean, obviously we wasted two days, $20,000 of taxpayer money. That could have been saved. But there would have been a question in everybody's mind that was in this body, if we hadn't heard the evidence, what could have been? Now those questions have been answered."

Some Democrats called the impeachments a power grab by the Republican-led legislature, strategically timed so GOP Gov. Jim Justice could name U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins and former House Speaker Tim Armstead to temporarily replace Ketchum and Davis while running for their spots on the bench. Jenkins and Armstead are among 20 total candidates seeking those seats in a Nov. 6 special election.

Judicial elections in West Virginia became nonpartisan in 2016. Walker is a Republican.

Across town, a 25-count indictment includes allegations that Loughry repeatedly lied about using his office for personal gain. He's also charged with making personal use of a state vehicle and credit card, and trying to influence an employee's testimony and a federal grand jury investigation.

The indictment accuses him of "creating a false narrative" about an antique desk and leather couch he had transferred from the Supreme Court offices to his home. He earlier pleaded not guilty to the indictment.

Loughry, in consultation with the other justices, had constitutional autonomy in deciding how the system spends a $139 million annual budget. He was removed and suspended without pay earlier this year by the state's high court.

Loughry has repeatedly denied involvement in his office renovations, which cost $353,000 and included a $32,000 blue suede couch and a $7,500 wood-inlay floor map of West Virginia. He also had a $42,000 state-owned antique desk moved into his home. He returned the desk after news outlets asked about it.

Impeachment trials are set later this month for Workman and Davis and next month for Loughry. Davis announced her retirement shortly after her impeachment, but the Senate also rejected a resolution that would have dropped charges against her.

A fifth justice, Menis Ketchum, resigned before impeachment proceedings began.

(KA)