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Where the West Virginia governor is sleeping has landed him in court

A lawmaker is suing the billionaire governor to force him to live in the state capital, instead of 100 miles away.
Image: Jim Justice
Jim Justice speaks during a roundtable discussion at Cabell-Huntington Health Department in Huntington, W.Va. on July 8, 2019.Alexander Drago / Reuters file

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Can a governor be forced to live in the state capital? A persistent lawsuit seeking to do just that with West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice was back in a courtroom Wednesday.

The Republican billionaire has frequently been criticized by members of both major parties for being absent from the Charleston statehouse as his business empire of more than 100 companies bogs down in litigation.

But perhaps the most forceful condemnation has come from a Democratic lawmaker whose lawsuits have accused Justice of violating a passage of the state Constitution that says the governor "shall reside at the seat of government."

The result has been a legal back-and-forth centered on the definition of the word "reside." There are also issues on the authority — and even the ability — of the courts to chaperone the whereabouts of the state's chief executive.

Wednesday's hearing rehashed some of those questions, including these previously posed by the governor's lawyers: "Is he 'residing' in Charleston if he sleeps there but departs in the morning and spends his waking hours elsewhere? Conversely, is he 'residing' in Charleston if he spends some portion of his waking hours there but sleeps elsewhere?"

After a short discussion, a circuit court judge extended the case by asking for more documents from Justice's legal team and Del. Isaac Sponaugle, who filed the suit.

Justice, whose estimated net worth totals about $1.5 billion, has said the case "is a total waste of time." His general counsel, Brian Abraham, issued a statement Wednesday echoing the same thoughts.

"This lawsuit is a frivolous political stunt designed to distract from the important work that needs to be done for the state," Abraham said.

But the housing issue is only the latest legal drama enveloping a governor whose diverse business portfolio of coal and agricultural interests have been the subject of multiple lawsuits over unpaid debts and safety fines. He has said he's handed off management of his businesses to his family members, but hasn't put all his companies in blind trusts.

The trail of lawsuits have led to fractures within his own party, with one ranking Senate Republican calling for Justice to resign in a newspaper piece titled "Jim Justice is Neither Democrat nor Republican — He's a Narcissistic Opportunist."

When the governor finally released his daily schedule to The Associated Press in compliance with the state's open records law, it showed he's rarely been at the statehouse, almost never meets with his Cabinet and was largely missing at one of the most critical points of this year's legislative session. He and his general counsel said the calendar doesn't accurately reflect his work as governor.

Whatever the merits of this case, records obtained by the AP show it has cost the state about $20,000 for a private law firm to represent Justice. The governor also has beefed up his legal team, recently hiring George Terwilliger, a U.S. Department of Justice veteran who previously served as acting attorney general and now leads a "crisis management" team at a Washington, D.C., firm.

Justice has acknowledged that he lives in Lewisburg, a city about 100 miles (160 kilometers) from the governor's mansion in Charleston but not far from The Greenbrier, a lavish resort he owns that hosts a PGA tour and has been the site of an annual congressional getaway. His official state website also says he lives in Lewisburg.

"You can have more than one residence, and he resides in the capital and he resides wherever he chooses on a nightly basis," Justice attorney Michael Carey said after the hearing. "But the fact remains he continues to perform the duties as governor in his discretion, and he resides as the Constitution requires in Charleston." Carey and the rest of Justice's legal team then ducked into an elevator away from reporters.

Justice won office as a Democrat in 2016 but announced he was switching parties at a Trump rally the following year. He's since clung tight to the president during policy debates, proclaiming he'd always have Trump's backing since he and the president are "bound at the hip." Current and former Trump aides are leading Justice's re-election campaign.

Sponaugle said the governor should have to comply with the state Constitution and live in the capital. He also wants the governor to turn over documents such as tax returns, security logs, expenses and other records that would provide details on Justice's location. His two previous attempts at the suit were thrown out.

"All I'm asking for the man to do is follow the Constitution, and he has the inability to do that, just like he has the inability to pay his taxes and has the inability to pay his bills," he said.