CHARLESTON, WV (AP)- The West Virginia Senate set the course Monday for an unprecedented impeachment trial of three Supreme Court justices who have been assailed for spending of more than $3 million on court office renovations at a time when the state was grappling with millions of dollars in budget cuts.
Chief Justice Margaret Workman, suspended Justice Allen Loughry and Justice Beth Walker are to be tried separately.
No dates have been set and, under rules approved by lawmakers, they do not need to be present for their trials.
The House of Delegates on Aug. 13 approved impeachment articles against the three along with Justice Robin Davis. Davis announced her retirement the following day
The Supreme Court has appointed Circuit Judge Paul T. Farrell to preside over the Senate trial. Senators will serve as the jury. Six delegates from the House have been appointed as prosecutors, including House Judiciary Chairman John Shott.
The Senate approved 34 rules for the trial, including small details such as allowing witnesses to be cross-examined and permitting senators to take notes.
One rule stipulates that after closing arguments, senators may deliberate by conference before voting in the chamber whether to sustain one or more of the impeachment articles, which would require a two-thirds majority. A separate vote would be held on the question of removing a justice from office.
Loughry faces seven articles of impeachment, Workman three and Walker one.
Loughry was suspended over allegations he repeatedly lied about using his office for personal gain. He also has been indicted on 25 federal charges, including a “scheme to defraud the state of West Virginia and others.”
The Senate voted along party lines to defeat two amendments introduced by Democrat Mike Woelfel, including one that would let the Senate, not Farrell, decide the order in which the justices are tried. Woelfel said he was concerned about the timing of Loughry’s Oct. 2 federal trial and whether Loughry’s team would seek to delay his Senate trial.
Republican Charles Trump, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, explained that the Senate would ultimately decide on whether to agree with Farrell on the order of the proceedings.
Davis and minority Democratic lawmakers have accused the Republican-led legislature of turning what they said was a legitimate pursuit of charges against Loughry into a blatant attempt to take over the court.
Shott, a Republican who oversaw the House Judiciary Committee hearings that drew up the articles of impeachment, has said the court’s lavish spending on office renovations earlier this decade came when the state was struggling so hard that it made tens of millions of dollars in budget cuts.
Shott said the impeachment articles overall accused the justices of a “culture of entitlement” that led to that spending and other abuses.
Spending by the justices for renovations to their individual offices included $500,000 by Davis, $353,000 by Loughry, $131,000 by Walker and $111,000 by Workman.
That includes a $32,000 blue suede leather couch in Loughry’s office and his spending of $7,500 for a floor map of West Virginia with a different-colored piece of wood for each county; and Davis’ spending of $56,500 for glass countertops and $28,000 for rugs.
The Supreme Court essentially sets and controls its own budget under the state constitution.
Lawmakers have placed an amendment on the November ballot that would give the Legislature more budgetary control. Opponents say that would infringe on the courts’ independence.
Some Democrats have criticized the impeachment moves as a power grab by majority Republican lawmakers, strategically timed to allow GOP Gov. Jim Justice to name their temporary replacements.
“It certainly appears to be that way,” Senate Democratic leader Roman Prezioso said Monday. “There’s never been any time in history where one branch of government supposedly controls another branch.
And for the governor to be able to appoint people to be replaced, obviously there’s that apprehension by a lot of the Democratic senators and House members, too.”
Justice Menis Ketchum retired last month. He’s agreed with prosecutors to plead guilty in federal court to a charge related to the personal use of a state vehicle and fuel.