Supreme Court intrigue continues

West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Walker did not exactly hit a home run during her impeachment trial before the state Senate. Call it a walk; senators voted not to remove her, but to censure her and leave her in office.

Next up to bat, Justice Margaret Workman. Her impeachment trial is scheduled to begin Oct. 15. What’s the outlook?

Not nearly as good as Walker’s — but, perhaps, not a strikeout.

A few weeks ago, I suggested some senators would not be unhappy if both Walker and Workman escaped removal. It was easy for 32 senators to vote against convicting the former. She was contrite, having admitted she made some mistakes. And she’d been in office less than a year when the high court waste and corruption scandal broke, so it was difficult to pin the one article of impeachment on her. It was a “maladministration” accusation that she failed to establish court policies aimed at preventing waste and fraud.

Workman is accused by the House of Delegates of that and allowing senior status (retired) circuit judges to be paid more than state law allows when they are called back for temporary duty.

She will have a tougher time than Walker in dodging the maladministration charge. Workman served on the high court once in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and was elected to her current term in 2008. She also has served as chief justice. Clearly, she has had the time to know about and consider changing policies.

As for the accusation on paying senior status judges, Workman’s attorneys have two plausible-sounding defenses. One is that the statute on pay can be interpreted in various ways. The other is that Workman never intended to violate state law.

Here’s what’s working in her favor:

First, Workman is fighting the charges vigorously — but she hasn’t made it personal. In contrast, former Justice Robin Davis has. She claims her impeachment (Senate trial scheduled after Workman’s) is a plot by Republicans to remove liberal women from the Supreme Court. She’s also accused lawmakers of attempting to destroy the rule of law in West Virginia.

In contrast to Davis, at least, Workman seems like Ms. Nice Gal. That never hurts.

Second, her defense on the senior status judges may work. Ignorance of the law may be no defense in a criminal trial, but that isn’t what’s going on. State senators can’t send anyone to jail. They can merely remove people from office and ban them from ever holding it again.

A sincere, “Hey, I didn’t know I was breaking the law, but if I did, I’m really sorry,” could help for Workman.

Then there’s the feeling some senators may have that they don’t need to can Workman in order to send the message that West Virginians are fed up with waste and corruption and aren’t going to tolerate it.

One justice, Menis Ketchum, resigned earlier this summer after agreeing to plead guilty to federal charges he misused a state car and purchasing card.

Davis quit in a huff after the House of Delegates impeached her.

Justice Allen Loughry, now being tried in federal court on nearly two dozen criminal charges, hasn’t got a prayer in the Senate.

And Davis, in addition to making many lawmakers angry by accusing them of being, well, evil, has other problems. She’s accused of “lavish and unnecessary” spending to remodel her court office. Half a million dollars would seem to fit that description.

If you’re keeping score, two of the five justices who were in place just a few months ago are already gone. A third, Loughry, will be convicted by the Senate. Three out of five may be good enough.

Finally, there’s the political angle. Walker is known as a conservative. Some Republican senators may worry that acquitting her while convicting Workman, viewed by some as a liberal, wouldn’t look good.

Bottom line: Don’t be surprised if Workman escapes removal but gets censured in more harsh terms than Walker. Don’t bet money on Davis and Loughry, though.

Myer can be reached at: mmyer@theintelligencer.net.

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