CHARLESTON — During the first day of special session, the West Virginia House of Delegates passed a resolution, 89-0, to move forward with an investigation into impeachment proceedings for one or more state Supreme Court Justices.
The proceedings are largely prompted by Justice Allen H. Loughry II, who was charged last week with a 22-count federal indictment, but members of the House have made it clear, Loughry is not the only Justice who could possibly be impeached.
According to the resolution, one or more of the following charges can prompt impeachment: maladministration, corruption, incompetency, gross immorality, or high crimes or misdemeanors. Those terms do not have explicitly defined definitions in state or federal code.
Members of the House Judiciary Committee met Tuesday afternoon to discuss how to proceed. They've been assigned documents for review, along with the generation of potential witness lists. A tentative meeting date is set for July 9.
Judiciary Committee Chair John Shott, R-Mercer, said he intends for all meetings to be open to the public, unless the committee moves for executive session.
If the Judiciary Committee brings forth articles of impeachment, one or more charges must be presented to the full House for a vote. If passed, the Senate will conduct a trial.
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One amendment to the impeachment resolution — a timeline for the House Judiciary Committee to submit findings by July 23 — was proposed, but voted down. The vote fell on party lines, with 57 nays and 32 yeas.
Democrats are concerned if the matter does not progress quickly enough, Gov. Jim Justice, a Republican, will appoint one or more Justices in the event of a vacancy for a two-plus year term, until the next regular election. The deadline is Aug. 14 for a special election to be held in November.
Republicans, however, shared concerns about the historic nature of the proceedings, and need to take the time to do it correctly.
Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, the lead sponsor of the amendment, requested a timeline of July 23 for the House Judiciary Committee to submit findings to the full House. He said the House would have nearly a month, and the Senate would have 21 days to act before the August deadline.
"Should the voters of the State of West Virginia have a right to vote on their Justices? Or should the governor have that power?" Sponaugle asked. "If you vote yes, you're saying the voters have that power. If you vote no, you're giving it to the governor."
A number of Republican delegates spoke against the amendment.
In his opposition, Delegate Riley Moore, R-Jefferson, said the House has been tasked not only with impeachment, but with something far greater: "What is incumbent upon us is to restore confidence in the people of West Virginia back in the highest court in the state."
Delegate Gary Howell, R-Mineral, likened the House process to that of a grand juror — a serious process dealing with the lives of people.
"We've got to get it right," Howell said. "It's very important we vote this amendment down, to make sure this body takes its job very seriously and keeps the politics out of it."
Delegate Tom Fast, R-Fayette, cited availability due to summer vacations, along with lack of information available until Loughry's federal investigation is complete. Fast also said the amendment suggested "some minds have already been made up."
In favor of the amendment, Delegate Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, said the timeline would create a much-needed sense of structure, because currently, "This place is chaos."
In addition to the impeachment proceedings, hearings were held Tuesday on a mismanaged $150 million flood recovery program, as well as the state Department of Health and Human Resources' expenditure of nearly $1 million for rent on a building that remained vacant.
Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, too, was in favor of creating a timeline.
He said, "There is no significant work to be done," citing reports from the State Auditor and the Judicial Investigation Commission.
Delegate Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, said the House shouldn't be "paralyzed in a long timeframe for something that's a mere indictment, not a conviction."
Delegate Andrew Robinson, D-Kanawha, argued the timeline should work, because the last impeachment investigation in 1989 was completed during the regular session while other legislation was being created.
In a final, yet unsuccessful plea, Sponaugle urged the House to vote in favor of the amendment to restore faith and confidence among the people.
"Stop sweetheart back room deals and allow the people to vote."
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Speaker Pro Tempore, Delegate John Overington, R-Berkeley, led the House session, as Speaker Armstead, R-Kanawha, has recused himself of Speaker duties, due to any potential conflict of interest. He has previously expressed interest in seeking a state Supreme Court seat in 2020.
During Tuesday's session, Armstead sought a ruling on whether he should vote on the resolution or any amendments.
Overington reviewed the rules, and determined Armstead and any other attorneys who would be eligible to seek such an office would be considered members of a class, and therefore required to vote.
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