By Steven Allen Adams
Parkersburg News and Sentinel
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Nearly one year after the West Virginia House of Delegates impeached four justices of the state Supreme Court of Appeal, Chief Justice Beth Walker is able to look back and see the positive that came out of that process.
Walker was one of four state supreme court justices that addressed the state’s reporters, editors, and publishers Saturday at the West Virginia Press Association’s 2019 Convention at the Lakeview Conference Center in Morgantown.
Justices Tim Armstead, Evan Jenkins, and John Hutchison joined Walker on Saturday to explain the reforms made to the state’s highest court, as well as promote its efforts at transparency, its workload, and its efforts to save taxpayer dollars. Justice Margaret Workman was unable to attend….
Walker, who became chief justice in January after being selected by her fellow justices, was one of four justices — one of whom resigned, and another sent to federal prison — to be impeached by house members Aug. 14. The House adopted 11 articles of impeachment stemming from abuse of power by specific justices.
One article of impeachment naming the entire court, including Walker, accused the court of not implementing policies or spending controls. Walker was the only justice to face an impeachment trial in the state Senate, which acquitted Walker and issued a censure.
“I was very public in the impeachment trial and took responsibility for everything, no matter how limited it may have been, that I had done. I learned a lot from that process. It was tremendously difficult. It was very political,” she said.
Having only taken office in January 2017, senators did not believe Walker should be removed from office and be penalized for the actions of other justices, including former Chief Justice Allen Loughry, who is serving his sentence on 10 charges of wire fraud, mail fraud, and making false statements. Federal prosecutors accused Loughry of using state vehicles and property for his personal use.
“I’m new on the court, and all of a sudden thing are blowing up,” Walker said. “It was a month after my acquittal in the Senate that I was elected chief for the following year.”
Loughry wasn’t the only justice to resign from the court. Former justice Menis Ketchum resigned in July 2018 and pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud shortly after for his personal use of a state vehicle and gas card. Former justice Robin Davis resigned the day after being impeached.
Ketchum and Davis were replaced by former House Speaker Tim Armstead and former congressman Evan Jenkins, both of whom won special elections in 2018 to retain their seats on the bench. Loughry was replaced by former circuit judge John Hutchison who will face a special election in 2020, while Armstead and Workman will be up for full 12-year terms.
Walker said having three brand-new justices — one with a perspective of circuit judges, and two with legislative experience — has been beneficial for the court and has allowed fresh ideas to flourish.
“It’s been a tremendous opportunity to change,” Walker said. “When you have five people who serve 12-year terms, they get kind of stuck or set. We had three new people right away with all kinds of ideas and all kinds of willingness to look at new ways of doing things.”
The five justices, including Workman, are working well together, Walker said. Since Walker took the gavel as chief justice, the court now has written policies for travel, accounting, purchasing card use, IT and computer use, asset management and inventory, and spending.
It’s all a part of the court’s Transparency and Accountability Initiative. The supreme court has been working with the legislative and executive branches, with more transparent budgeting. The court also works with the State Auditor’s Office to improve spending transparency. There are 17 state cars in the judiciary fleet. All cars are in a pool, with no cars set aside exclusively for use by justices.
The court is also increasing its public outreach by speaking at schools and community organizations, as well as creating new videos to explain the court’s history and functions. Walker’s goal with public outreach is to keep the justices close to the people instead of walled off or disconnected.
“I firmly believe that any kind of public official that just stays in our office, stays at the capitol in Charleston, doesn’t get out, doesn’t talk to taxpayers, doesn’t talk to the media — they become isolated,” Walker said. “Our approach has been quite the opposite. We’ve been out a lot.”
One area that has seen reform is how the supreme court spends money. Armstead, who has experience with reviewing budgets submitted by the Governor’s Office and state agencies, said much work has been done to rein in spending and operate more efficiently.
“We know we’re not going to restore confidence overnight. It’s up to the people to decide if we’ve restored confidence,” Armstead said. “We’re working every day to make sure the court operates more efficiently.”
The supreme court oversees 75 circuit judges, 47 family court judges, 158 magistrates: combined with staff, the court overseas 1,472 employees. In fiscal year 2019 which ended in June, the court had a budget of $139 million. The fiscal year 2020 budget that started in July was $121 million — $18 million less than the previous fiscal year.
“We went through and sat with our budget people … and talked about how we could more efficiently spend that money, where are we budgeted more than what we need … we tried to get very detailed in that discussion,”Armstead said. “As a result of that, we did make significant reductions in line items.”
When the court turns in its budget request to the legislature in January 2020, lawmakers will officially have more of a say over court spending. Amendment 2, approved by voters in 2018, allows the legislature to reduce the court’s budget, something the constitution had prevented lawmakers from doing.
The legislature is still prohibited from reducing the supreme court budget more than 85 percent of the court’s previous fiscal year budget unless the House and Senate have a two-thirds vote. Armstead said that’s why they started cutting their budget early and working hand-in-hand with the legislature on budget issues.
“I think we’ve had a very good discussion with the legislature and good relationship with the legislature,” Armstead said. “There are safeguards to protect the legislative ability to oversee the budget, and the court’s ability to have its independence as well. I think there is a balance there.”
Hutchison, who served as a circuit court judge in Raleigh County, briefed the media on the court’s caseload, which he said is up-to-date. During the January 2019 term that ended in June, the court issued 261 memorandum decisions and 61 signed opinions.
The appeals the court hears the most, Hutchison said, involves domestic cases dealing with abuse and neglect. According to court statistics, 32 percent of the court’s cases in 2017 were domestic cases. In 2018, that increased by 4 percent. During the 2019 spring term of the court, domestic cases decreased by 6 percent from 2018 numbers, though Hutchison expects the number to increase.
Hutchison said he didn’t have firm statistics but believed the increase in domestic cases could be linked to the state’s opioid crisis. It was a factor in many of the cases Hutchison dealt with as a circuit judge.
“Having served on the circuit bench for as long as I did, I can tell you anecdotally that of the cases I’ve dealt with, probably 85 to 90 percent of the cases had a drug component,” Hutchison said. “I’m not saying drugs caused the initial issue, but the drugs were there.”
Taking that into account, the supreme court is implementing two new treatment courts alongside the successful drug court program. Family treatment courts, which should be up and running in September, will help parents with drug addiction who are in the middle of an abuse and neglect cases
“The family treatment court is a good way for us to try some new things,”Armstead said. “There hasn’t been as much funding available and maybe not as many opportunities in the court system to see if families can be kept together in those situations where the parents can seek treatment and establish themselves as good parents.”
Jenkins walked attendees through improvements to the state supreme court website. The site, located at courtswv.gov, includes better search functions, direct links to county court pages, the docket, supreme court opinions, statistics, and the court’s new policies.
“It’s about accountability, it’s about transparency and it’s about getting the word out,” Jenkins said. “I was amazed at the amount of information that is readily available on our website.”
For Walker, it’s been a tough year for the court, but through the impeachment controversy she believes that a new and improved court was created.
“I was presented a horrible situation that turned out to be the best thing ever,” Walker said. “We are focused on re-earning the trust of everyone in West Virginia and the integrity of our judicial system. We’re working hard on it and I’m pleased to say that the five of us, working as a team, have come a long way.”