A little over a year ago, the West Virginia Supreme Court was in shambles.
In 2017, media outlets began to report on spending by the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia, and eventually, the court was audited by the state’s legislative auditor.
The audit found significant irregularities in spending habits, including commuting with court-owned vehicles, improper purchasing of gift cards, and expensive office renovations — not the least of which was a $32,000 couch for then-Justice Allen Loughry.
Justice Menis Ketchum resigned and pleaded guilty to wire fraud, and in August 2018, the West Virginia House of Delegates impeached all remaining justices, including Loughry, who faced a 22 count indictment.
When all was settled, Loughry — who originally faced up to 400 years in prison — was sentenced to 24 months in federal prison. Ketchum was sentenced to three years of probation and a $20,000 fine. Justice Robin Davis resigned and is currently suing over her impeachment.
Justice Margaret Workman’s impeachment trial was halted by an injunction, stating that the articles of impeachment filed by the House violated the separation of powers doctrine. The impeachment trial for Justice Beth Walker concluded the day after it began, with the Senate overwhelmingly voting not to remove her from office.
Walker and Workman remained on the court while Davis, Ketchum and Loughry were replaced by Justices Evan Jenkins, Tim Armstead and John Hutchison, respectively. The scandal rocked state government and exposed a new spate of corruption in Charleston.
Now, under Chief Justice Walker’s leadership, the court has implemented a Transparency and Accountability Initiative. There are now written policies and procedures for various spending activities, and the court is actively working with the State Auditor’s Office to improve spending transparency. The court is trying to move past its mistakes and improve the public’s trust in them through outreach, transparency and smarter spending.
“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.
“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. As a result of that, we did make significant reductions in line items.”
“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.”
Although our Supreme Court is far from perfect, we applaud their initiative to be more transparent and open about the machinations therein and believe these measures are important and long overdue. We also applaud the media organizations that reported on the initial spending and triggered the investigation.
We’d like to see other branches of government follow the court’s lead and institute full transparency with the public. We believe government officials are public servants and should behave as such.