Back in January, West Virginia Supreme Court justice Allen Loughry was in hot water. Reports suggested that he’d spent $32,000 of taxpayer money for a couch in his government office and relocated state-owned furniture to his home. In light of these allegations, a Democratic member of the House of Delegates called on that body’s Judiciary Committee to investigate Loughry’s potential corruption and consider removing him from office.
This shocked and appalled Mitch Carmichael, the Republican president of the West Virginia Senate, who called the proposal “the single dumbest, most ridiculous political stunt that I’ve seen in my time in the Legislature.”
But then, the investigation went forward and turned up evidence that — in addition to spending lavish sums on his courthouse accommodations —Loughry had instructed state employees to transport furniture from the Supreme Court building to his home, and had driven a state-owned car to signings for his 2006 book, Don’t Buy Another Vote, I Won’t Pay for a Landslide: The Sordid and Continuing History of Political Corruption in West Virginia.
And it also became apparent that Loughry wasn’t the only justice who’d displayed extremely poor judgement on the propriety of dipping into the public purse. The West Virginia constitution gives the state Supreme Court the power to set its own budget. And while some justices took more egregious advantage of these liberties than others, all spent enough on their offices to cause an ordinary citizen of the cash-strapped state indignation. Suddenly, it became apparent that adopting a “zero-tolerance” policy toward Supreme Court justices indulging in lavish spending would redound to the GOP’s benefit: If the state legislature impeached and convicted the entire court — which had previously had a one-vote Democratic majority — then Republican governor Jim Justice could handpick each and every one of his judicial overseers. The only hitch was that the party would need to ensure that the impeachment process ran past August 14 — otherwise, special elections would be held to replace the impeached justices this fall (and thus, Governor Justice would not get to compile a full court of Justice’s justices). If the justices were removed from office after that date, then Justice could have his own personal Supreme Court reign until 2020.
So, the GOP-controlled House Judiciary Committee “took its time, even conducting a tour of the state Supreme Court offices earlier this month,” according to the Associated Press. And late Monday, Republicans in the House of Delegates voted to impeach all of the state’s remaining Supreme Court justices — ensuring that the Senate would be unable to convict them before the August 14 deadline.
Alas, the GOP didn’t wait quite long enough — Justice Robin Davis, a Democrat, had enough time after her impeachment to retire Monday, thereby triggering an election for her seat this fall. “Preconceived, adult-driven mania among the majority party members in the Legislature cannot result in a just and fair outcome,” Davis said at a press conference. “I have always placed my faith in the people of West Virginia. I return that faith to the people of West Virginia today.”
But, assuming Republican Senate president Mitch Carmichael no longer believes that impeaching justices for lavish spending is a “ridiculous political stunt,” Justice will still get to pick his own majority on the state’s high court.
Meanwhile, just a little farther south and east, the North Carolina GOP’s attempts to rig a state Supreme Court election hit a major snag. In 2017, Republicans in the Tarheel State’s legislature abolished judicial primaries, over Democratic governor Roy Cooper’s veto. Their goal was to protect Republican justice Barbara Jackson from both intraparty competition and a viable Democratic challenger — their assumption being that Democrats would have more trouble uniting around a candidate, and would thus end up splitting their votes between multiple contenders.
But this plan backfired. Democrats settled on the civil-rights attorney Anita Earls as their standard-bearer in the race, while Raleigh lawyer Chris Anglin — who had long been registered as a Democrat — changed his party affiliation and filed to run for the Supreme Court as a Republican.
Republicans in the state’s General Assembly tried to rectify their error in July, by passing a law that would prohibit any Supreme Court candidate from running as a member of the Democratic or Republican Party, if he or she had not been registered with said party at least 90 days before entering the race. Anglin considered this a violation of his rights — and on Monday, Wake County Superior Court judge Rebecca Holt concurred. As Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern reports:
Holt explained that Anglin has “a vested right to have his party affiliation listed on the ballot”—a right the legislature infringed upon by changing the rules and applying them retroactively. This switcheroo “violates fundamental principles of fairness,” Holt found, “thereby violating [Anglin’s] right to due process” under the North Carolina constitution. She also held that the new law “severely burdens” Anglin’s “associational rights” under the state constitution by preventing him from affiliating with his chosen party. And because the law is justified by no compelling or legitimate state interest, she concluded, it must be set aside.
Republicans could appeal the ruling. But time is not on their side, and the state’s Supreme Court probably isn’t either; ballots must be finalized this week, and the current court’s Democratic majority has shown little reluctance about swatting down GOP power grabs.
The West Virginia GOP, on the other hand, may not have to worry about Democrats on their state’s Supreme Court for the rest of this decade.