Prelude to impeachment trials set to start in West Virginia

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia's unprecedented impeachment process for four Supreme Court justices gets started this week with initial appearances before the state Senate.

The justices or their lawyers have been ordered to appear at a pre-trial conference Tuesday before the Senate, which will serve as the jury. Dates for the actual impeachment trials have not been set.

The House of Delegates voted last month to impeach justices Robin Davis, Allen Loughry, Beth Walker and Margaret Workman. Davis retired hours afterward but remains a target of impeachment articles.

A conviction at trial could mean a justice would be disqualified from holding public office.

The impeachments stemmed from questions involving renovations to the justices' offices. Those questions evolved into accusations of corruption, incompetence and neglect of duty. Democratic lawmakers, who hold minorities in the House and Senate, have characterized the impeachments as an unprecedented power grab by the GOP.

Impeachments in state government are rare in the U.S., especially among Supreme Court justices. Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Judge Rolf Larsen was removed by impeachment in 1994 for voting on whether to hear cases based on input from an attorney who was also a political supporter. But impeaching an entire multi-member court appears to be unheard of.

"Will history record that West Virginians overreacted to a housekeeping — though stupid housekeeping — decision by reaching into the constitution and pulling out a little-used and very important tool of impeachment to deliver a message?" West Virginia political history professor Robert Rupp said Monday.

Because there's no precedent, he added, "In a sense we're groping in the dark to figure out how this is all going to work.

"Not only is it new and unique, we have no guidelines for this."

The last time the Legislature engaged in anything remotely like this was 1989, when state Treasurer A. James Manchin was impeached by the House after the state lost $279 million invested in the bond market. He resigned before the Senate took up the impeachment measure.

Some Democrats have complained that the impeachments were strategically timed to allow GOP Gov. Jim Justice to name temporary replacements.

A fifth justice, Menis Ketchum, resigned in July and pleaded guilty last month to a felony count of fraud related to his personal use of a state vehicle and gas fuel card. He faces up to 20 years in prison.

Loughry was suspended in June. A 25-count federal indictment against him alleges, in part, that he repeatedly lied about using his office for personal gain. His federal trial is set for Oct. 2.

A legislative audit report released last week said the Supreme Court's chief justices skirted state law concerning pay for senior status judges who are no longer on full-time duty. State law prohibits those judges from making more than active circuit judges. The audit said that to circumvent the law, Supreme Court officials began converting senior status judges from employees to independent contractors.

The audit tallied Supreme Court office renovations between 2012 and 2016 at $3.4 million, including $1.9 million for the five justices' chambers. Auditors say invoices for renovations to the court's law library and administrative offices were not made available.

The report also showed the court spent a $29 million budget surplus between fiscal years 2012 and 2015, whittling it to $333,514. The money was used for renovations; pay increases for judges, justices and magistrates; computer services; and attorney legal services, among other expenditures.

Individual office spending by the justices for renovations included $503,000 by Davis, $367,000 by Loughry, $131,000 by Walker and $113,000 by Workman.

Among Loughry's expenditures were a $32,000 blue suede leather couch in his office and $7,500 for a wooden floor state map with individually outlined counties. Davis spent $56,500 for glass countertops and $28,000 for rugs.

The retirements of Ketchum and Davis ahead of a deadline for justices to step down or be removed meant their replacements would be decided by voters, not gubernatorial appointments. A special election will be held in November to fill their unexpired terms. If the Senate convicts any other justices, the governor would be able to name their replacements.

The court's fall term starts in early October. Walker and Workman, along with three circuit judges appointed as temporary justices, met in late August to deny a last-minute bid by former coal CEO Don Blankenship to be listed on the November ballot for the U.S. Senate race.