Shedding Light

Audit planned for State Supreme Court

Among the most important safeguards of our liberty is the doctrine of separation of powers. The key to ensuring the judiciary retains its independence as one of those powers is, of course, money. Attempts by the legislative branch to punish judges and justices through the budgeting process are impermissible.

But knowing how the judicial branch spends its money is something else. We taxpayers have a right to know whether our courts are being frivolous with our hard-earned cash.

Clearly, someone in the West Virginia Supreme Court was guilty of precisely that. Press reports during the past few months, of spending $32,000 on a couch, $1,700 on throw pillows, $7,500 on an inlaid floor and in other ways most Mountain State residents could never afford make that plain.

On Sunday, state legislators learned the court is about to be put under a microscope. Legislative Auditor Aaron Allred said he plans to conduct an audit of the court this year. Presumably, that will include all its spending, which ranges from the Supreme Court itself to circuit and other lower judicial bodies throughout the state.

Allred’s timing is good. Public outrage over the high court’s spending puts pressure on lawmakers to do something about it during their 60-day session this winter. There is no way an audit can be completed in that time frame, giving the Legislature a good reason to refrain from taking any precipitous action.

Given the situation, that is a good thing. An audit should provide more information on just what happened at the high court.

If you have missed the controversy during the past several weeks, it amounts to this: Questionable spending has occurred, but some justices insist they were unaware of it and that former court Administrator Steve Canterbury is to blame. He, of course, maintains the justices knew about his spending and, in some cases, authorized it directly.

An audit, looking at documents such as purchase orders, may shed more light on that. It also may provide even more examples of questionable spending.

The courts are right to insist on their independence from undue restraints by either the legislative or executive branches.

But there is a fourth type of power in a state such as ours, where both circuit judges and Supreme Court justices are elected. The audit may let voters know whether it is time we forced the judiciary to be more wise stewards of our money.