West Virginia is in the grips of a constitutional crisis, as the state’s highest court effectively ended an impeachment proceeding against one of its own members.
The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals ruled that the state legislature exceeded its authority in impeaching its own chief justice, Margaret Workman, for violations of the state judicial conduct code. Should Workman be removed from office, she would become the fourth justice in as many months to leave the court in disgrace.
West Virginia’s Supreme Court has been in a state of disarray since the summer. A full complement of duly elected justices sat on the court in June of this year: Workman and Justices Robin Jean Davis, Menis Ketchum, Beth Walker and Allen Loughry. Since then, Loughry and Ketchum have been convicted on fraud charges in federal court, Davis retired to avoid an impeachment trial, and Workman and Walker were impeached by the state legislature.
GOP Gov. Jim Justice appointed two interim justices to the vacant Davis and Ketchum seats in August. Workman appointed a third acting justice to replace Loughry.
Workman in turn sued the state legislature, arguing her impeachment is unconstitutional on separation of powers and due process principles. It was left to the shorthanded, embattled state Supreme Court to issue final judgment about the legislature’s power to remove its own judges. Workman, Walker and the three interim appointees recused from the case, meaning an entirely new slate of acting justices were selected to hear Workman’s appeal. (RELATED: New Evidence Of Illegal Donations To West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Emerges)
This acting, quasi, sort-of-but-not-really West Virginia Supreme Court vindicated Workman in its decision Thursday. The panel explained that the legislature exceeded its authority by impeaching Workman for violations of the state judicial ethics code. The state constitution provides that only the Supreme Court — not the legislature — can enforce the code, meaning only the Supreme Court itself has power to sanction Workman.
“This court has exclusive authority and jurisdiction under the West Virginia Constitution and the rules promulgated thereunder, to sanction a judicial officer for a violation of a Canon of the West Virginia Code of Judicial Conduct,” the decision reads. “Therefore, the West Virginia Constitution prohibits the [state legislature] from prosecuting a judicial officer for an alleged violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct.”
The court also found that the legislature failed to follow the impeachment process prescribed in the constitution. The legislature is required to include “findings of fact” establishing the misconduct at issue when drafting articles of impeachment, a duty to the assembly failed to carry out.
“We are gravely concerned with the procedural flaws that occurred in the House of Delegates,” the ruling states. “Basic due process principles demand that governmental bodies follow the rules they enact for the purpose of imposing sanctions against public officials.”
“Failure to follow such rules will invalidate all articles of impeachment that it returns against a public officer,” it adds.
It’s not yet clear how the legislature will proceed, though some lawmakers have proposed asking the court to reconsider the procedural portions of its opinion. This would allow the House of Delegates to refile impeachment articles according to the proper process.
“It is important that we all exercise deliberation, the best judgment we can muster, because history will judge us for how we react, what we do in this moment,” GOP state Sen. Charles Trump said, according to local press.
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