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System setting its own rules?

What if a West Virginia Supreme Court justice decided she or he needed a couch with a price tag of, say, $100,000?

Or what if circuit judges convinced the high court their $126,000 annual salaries were not adequate, despite the fact they’re specified in state law?

Buy the couch. Give the judges a raise.

No one — save voters once a Supreme Court judge reaches the end of his or her 12-year term and seeks re-election — can do anything about it.

That certainly appears to be the bottom line in a ruling issued this week by — you guessed it — the West Virginia Supreme Court. We’ll see what the U.S. Supreme Court has to say about that.

State senators have impeachment trials scheduled for two sitting high court justices (Margaret Workman and Allen Loughry) and one who resigned after the House of Delegates impeached her (Robin Davis). A fourth, Justice Elizabeth Walker, already has been acquitted by the Senate.

But Workman’s trial, set to begin Monday morning, may be on hold.

The court — actually, five circuit judges temporarily appointed to it because of the impeachment situation — on Thursday issued a ruling that Workman cannot be tried by the Senate.

Senate leaders quickly responded that they will appeal that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. They also said the Monday trial will go on as scheduled. It is difficult to see how that can happen, because acting Chief Justice Paul Farrell has said he will not preside over the proceeding. The state constitution requires that someone from the high court be the presiding officer.

The Thursday ruling boils down to three points:

First, the separation of powers doctrine limits legislative control over the judiciary. Specifically, argues the current court, the 1974 Judicial Reorganization Amendment to the state constitution means “that the court’s rules supersede any legislation in conflict with a court-promulgated rule.”

Bottom line: West Virginia’s Supreme Court doesn’t have to obey any law regarding the judiciary that is approved by the Legislature.

That pertains to two of the three articles of impeachment against Workman. They accuse her of being involved in paying senior-status (retired) circuit judges more than the law allows.

Senators can’t try her on those two charges because the law regarding pay for senior-status judges is unconstitutional, the current court holds.

So, by extension, the state Supreme Court can authorize any salary it chooses for anyone, from judges to custodians, involved in the court system.

Second, a third article of impeachment against Workman is invalid because it alleges she and other justices were guilty of maladministration by failing to establish policies to prevent waste and fraud.

Now, the state constitution permits impeachment for maladministration. But the House of Delegates specifically accused Workman and the others of violating two canons of the West Virginia Code of Judicial Conduct.

No dice, ruled the court, contending that, “The Supreme Court has Exclusive Jurisdiction to Determine Whether a Judicial Officer’s Conduct Violates a Canon of the Code of Judicial Conduct.”

Third, the court holds that the House of Delegates made a procedural mistake in handling articles of impeachment sent to the Senate. A technicality, in other words.

Give the state court credit for anticipating an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Page 22 of the ruling notes that, “The United States Supreme Court has also recognized that a state supreme court may set its own constitutional protections at a higher level than accepted by the federal constitution.”

The meat of the ruling is on page 41, where justices hold that the state constitution “unquestionably provides this Court with the sole constitutional authority to promulgate rules for the judicial system, and demands that those rules have the force of law.”

Wow. Talk about an imperial judiciary. Is this what the nation’s founders intended by separation of powers?

A court system that sets all its own rules — because it says it can?

A court that is above the law in some ways?

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

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