Legislators side with media on court tour

CHARLESTON — An effort to prevent members of the media from attending a tour of the High Court’s offices came under fire from lawmakers Friday.

Members of the House Judiciary Committee – looking into articles of impeachment on one or more justices of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals – were scheduled to tour the offices of the court Friday morning. On Thursday, members of the media were informed they would need to get separate permission to join the tour.

Several members of the press emailed a request to the court to join the committee’s tour, only to be informed that the tour was for lawmakers and committee staff only. WV MetroNews reporter Brad McElhinny asked the court to reconsider.

“I would like to request a reconsideration because these proceedings are clearly in the public interest and involve West Virginia constitutional issues spanning multiple branches of government,” McElhinny wrote to Jennifer Bundy, the court’s public information officer. “Not only is the physical layout of the Supreme Court an issue in these proceedings, but so is the balance between the judiciary and the legislative branch. We have an interest in being there to see that.”

Several media outlets — including The Parkersburg News and Sentinel — signed on to the email, asking the court to reconsider and allow media on the tour. Don Smith, executive director of the West Virginia Press Association, asked the court to consider a pool arrangement, where one or more press representative could take the tour and provide content to other members of the media.

“As you can see, the media interest on behalf of the people of West Virginia is statewide,” Smith said. “The office tour is a legitimate part of these proceedings and this coverage. On behalf of the WV Press Association, it’s 73 newspapers, the broadcast media of WV, and the people of this state, I encourage the court to reconsider its position.”

But by Friday morning, the court doubled down on its stand of denying the press access to accompany the House Judiciary Committee. In a press release, the court cited state code allowing them to deny access to the press.

“The House Judiciary Committee tour of the Supreme Court offices is an on-site inspection,” the release said. “As such, this site inspection is not a ‘meeting’ as defined under W.Va. Code 3/4 6-9A-2(5)(B) of the Open Governmental Meetings Act. The Committee members will be instructed that the Supreme Court will not allow photography or video during the tour, and that if afterward they believe pictures or videos are necessary, Chairman John Shott and the Committee’s photographer will contact Interim Court Administrator Barbara Allen.”

That section of state code defines a “meeting” as “the convening of a governing body of a public agency for which a quorum is required in order to make a decision or to deliberate toward a decision on any matter which results in an official action.” It goes on to say that an on-site inspection of a project or program doesn’t count as a meeting.

The banning of media did not sit well with members of the committee, who voted nearly unanimously to delay their court tour until July 27, giving time for the court to reconsider its media ban.

The committee also voted to allow a reporter, a still photographer, and a TV videographer to accompany the committee. Only delegates Tom Fast, R-Fayette, and Charlotte Lane, R-Kanawha, voted against the motion from Del. Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio.

During the discussion, Fluharty raised concerns about violating the state’s Open Meetings Act by the court splitting the committee into two groups for the tour and circumventing having a quorum.

“It’s funny you brought up the open meetings potential violation,” Fluharty said to Shott, R-Mercer. “I heard we’re going to separate into two groups, which I believe is an attempt by the court to say we’re not going to meet the quorum requirement of an open meetings law violation. If we would do so, it would be a misdemeanor under the law … which could be brought against every member of this body.”

“That’s your interpretation of the act,” Shott said. “We’ve conferred with other counsel and at least three lawyers about the issue. They’re all of the opinion unanimously that this provision would exempt us from a meeting.”

Del. Rodney Miller, D-Boone, pointed out that media have been allowed to accompany lawmakers on tours of facilities around the state, including state prisons.

“I find it ironic that back during some of the visits that we have made in the off-session in consideration of legislation dealing with our corrections system that ultimately passed, that members of our media were actually allowed to go with us to our state’s maximum-security prison and be on the frontline with us,” Miller said.

Earlier Friday morning, committee members listened to audio from a House Finance Committee budget hearing during the 2018 legislative session. A 32-count complaint from the state’s Judicial Investigation Commission and a 23-count federal indictment both accuse Justice Allen Loughry of lying under oath to the committee. Loughry is suspended without pay from the court.

Committee members will return Thursday, July 26, to hear testimony from former court administrator Steve Canterbury.