West Virginia Supreme Court blocks justice's impeachment trial

A group of judicial stand-ins Thursday blocked the upcoming impeachment trial of West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Margaret Workman, citing constitutional issues and errors in preliminary impeachment proceedings.

Five acting justices on the Supreme Court ruled in a 69-page opinion the prosecution of Workman in the state Senate would violate the state constitution's separation of powers clause.

The justices ruled the state Senate, acting as the court of impeachment, does not have the jurisdiction over the impeachment articles against Workman.

Workman had filed the petition against the state Senate and its leaders. Her impeachment trial had been set to start in the chamber next Monday.

Senate spokesman Jacque Bland says in a statement the Senate plans to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. Bland said the court of impeachment still plans to meet Monday -- even though the order prohibits it from proceeding with the trial.

The House of Delegates impeached Workman on a charge that she and other justices abused their authority by failing to control office expenses and not maintaining policies about the use of state vehicles, office computers at home and other matters.

Workman contended the charge was invalid because it was based upon alleged violations of the West Virginia Code of Judicial Conduct, which is constitutionally regulated by the Supreme Court. The court's order prohibited Workman from being tried on those charges.

Two other impeachment articles accused Workman of allowing senior status judges to be paid higher wages than are allowed. Workman said the state statute cited in the two articles pertaining to judicial appointments conflicts with a 2017 court administrative order authorizing the payments to assure statewide continuity of judicial services.

The temporary justices found the statute unconstitutional and unenforceable, saying the judicial appointments are regulated exclusively by the Supreme Court.

The court also noted an adopted House procedure mandated that an overall impeachment resolution be passed. But after lengthy hearings where individual impeachment charges were brought, the chamber did not formally approve the overall resolution, which violated the justices' due process.

"The Constitution of West Virginia requires the House of Delegates follow the procedures that it creates to impeach a public officer," the ruling said. "Failure to follow such rules will invalidate all Articles of Impeachment that it returns against a public officer."

The House impeached four justices in August over questions involving lavish office renovations that evolved into accusations of corruption, incompetence and neglect of duty.

Justice Beth Walker was cleared of an impeachment charge last week in the state Senate. Retired Justice Robin Davis has asked a federal court to halt her upcoming impeachment trial.

Suspended Justice Allen Loughry, who is currently on trial in federal court on criminal charges related to accusations that he used his office for personal gain, has an impeachment trial scheduled for mid-November.

A fifth justice, Menis Ketchum, resigned before impeachment proceedings began.

Some Democrats have called the impeachments a power grab by the Republican-led legislature, strategically timed so GOP Gov. Jim Justice could name U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins and former House Speaker Tim Armstead to temporarily replace Ketchum and Davis while running for their spots on the bench. Jenkins and Armstead are among 20 total candidates seeking those seats in a Nov. 6 special election.

Acting Chief Justice James Matish wrote in the court's opinion that "the greatest fear we should have in this country today is ourselves. If we do not stop the infighting, work together, and follow the rules; if we do not use social media for good rather than use it to destroy; then in the process, we will destroy ourselves."