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Impeachment of entire West Virginia Supreme Court draws cry of 'partisan witch hunt'

The justices were impeached over extravagant spending decried on both sides of the aisle. But some Democrats suspect there's more to the story.
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Allen Loughry, a justice on the West Virginia state Supreme Court, literally wrote the book on political corruption. "Don't Buy Another Vote, I Won't Pay for a Landslide," published 12 years ago, takes aim at the "sordid" culture of grift and graft in his home state.

But this week, in an ironic coda to his 623-page tome, Loughry found himself at the center of a roiling political scandal. He and his three other colleagues on the highest court in West Virginia were impeached over financial abuses and extravagant spending — such as the $363,000 that Loughry, who faces a 23-count federal indictment, dropped on renovations for his office.

The way the justices seemed to burn through money was, in the eyes of many outraged legislators, a clear abuse of power — not to mention a bad look in a poor and cash-strapped state where 17.9 percent of the population lives in poverty. The 11 articles of impeachment passed the state House late Monday, setting the stage for a trial in the state Senate.

But as the dust settled on Tuesday, some Democratic lawmakers and a few legal experts cried foul. Yes, some of them said, the profligate spending was unacceptable — even deeply offensive. But impeachment, they said, might have been too extreme, especially for the justices accused of less egregious financial infractions.

In the words of one legislator, the whole affair "reeks of partisan politics" and resembles a purge.

"It was absolutely, in my opinion, a partisan witch hunt," said that legislator, Mike Caputo, the Democratic minority whip in the state House of Delegates.

Republicans control both chambers of the legislature — including 22 out of 34 seats in the state Senate, where a two-thirds vote is required for conviction. The state's GOP governor, Jim Justice, would then fill as many as three vacancies on the bench. (Justice's office did not immediately return a request for comment.)

"That would mean you have one party controlling the House, one party controlling the Senate, one party controlling the governorship, and that same party controlling the judiciary," said Chad Lovejoy, another Democrat in the state House. "We're talking about taking off the head of another co-equal branch."

At least one of the impeached justices seemed to recognize the political stakes. Justice Robin Davis, a Democrat who was impeached for spending some $500,000 in office renovations, resigned on Tuesday morning right before a deadline to set a November special election to fill empty seats on the five-member court.

"When a legislative body attempts to dismantle a separate branch of government, the immediate effects as well as the precedent it sets for the future can only be deemed disastrous," Davis said in prepared remarks at the state Capitol on Tuesday. "The will of the people of West Virginia is being denied."

Davis' seat, along with that of a fifth justice, Menis Ketchum, who resigned in July, will be decided at the ballot box. But if Loughry and the two other impeached justices — Margaret Workman, a Democrat, and Beth Walker, a Republican — are convicted in the state Senate and removed from office, Gov. Justice would get to handpick their temporary replacements, who would eventually come up for election.

It was absolutely, in my opinion, a partisan witch hunt."

It appeared no legislators from either party have defended the justices for their apparently lavish spending habits. Rodney Miller, a Democrat in the state House, said he was "offended" by the expenditures and other financial abuses, such as Loughry taking home a $32,000 suede leather couch. Caputo, the legislator who blasted the purported "witch hunt," said he thought some of it was "horrible and quite frankly disgusting."

John Shott, a Republican who oversaw the state House Judiciary Committee hearings that produced the articles of impeachment, has said the high court spent more than $3 million in office renovations earlier this decade as the state was barely staying afloat financially and grappling with painful budget cuts, according to the Associated Press.

But in West Virginia, unlike most U.S. states, the judiciary effectively controls its own budget, giving the justices wide latitude, said Patricia Proctor, the director of the Simon Perry Center for Constitutional Democracy at Marshall University in West Virginia.

In other words, as "outrageous as some of the spending was, the [state] Constitution gives the justices the authority to do this," said Caputo, the legislator — "even Justice Loughry, who is up to his neck in the swamp he's with the alligators." (Loughry was suspended from the bench earlier this year. He has pleaded not guilty to 23 charges in a federal corruption indictment.)

A date has not been announced for the trial of Loughry as well as Workman and Walker, both of whom announced on Tuesday that they would not step down from the court. In the meantime, the top court in the state finds itself in limbo, said James Sample, a law professor at Hofstra University who specializes in judicial ethics.

"Whatever the interim period is, we essentially don't have a functioning West Virginia state Supreme Court," Sample said.