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West Virginia governor accused of stacking state Supreme Court with Republicans

Critics are calling it an attempted judicial coup by Republican Governor Jim Justice.

West Virginia Governor Jim Justice is facing criticism for new state Supreme Court appointees. (Credit: Hunter Martin/Getty Images)
West Virginia Governor Jim Justice is facing criticism for new state Supreme Court appointees. (Credit: Hunter Martin/Getty Images)

For the first time in the history of any U.S. state, the entire Supreme Court of West Virginia was impeached this month. State lawmakers voted to impeach the justices over alleged wasteful spending, incompetence, and potential criminal misconduct.

On Saturday, the state’s governor Jim Justice announced that he had picked two politicians from his Republican Party to temporarily fill vacancies on the court. Announcing the appointments, Gov. Justice said the state needs “without any question — a conservative court.”

West Virginia House Speaker Tim Armstead and Rep. Evan Jenkins will serve on the court until November’s midterm elections. Voters will then be able to elect new justices from a list of 20 candidates, including Jenkins and Armstead.

Democrats, not surprisingly, are crying foul.

The two Republican lawmakers are replacing two of the Justices who were elected to the court as Democrats — Robin Davis and Menis Ketchum. Davis resigned on August 14 one day after the impeachment vote while Ketchum had resigned at the end of July prior to being charged with federal wire fraud.

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The three other court justices are set to face impeachment trial resuming in mid-September in the state Senate. Should they be found guilty, the state governor can appoint their replacements, who would serve until the 2020 election.

No one has defended the lavish spending by the justices — including an office renovation with a $32,000 blue suede sofa — which brought on the charges. However, the calls for impeachment have been led mostly by Republicans.

In total, three of the five justices on the state Supreme Court were Democrats. “They’re going after everyone because it’s the balance of the court,” Delegate Mike Pushkin said earlier this month according to the New York Times. Pushkin had been among the first lawmakers to call for an investigation into one of the Supreme Court justices in February.

Several Democrats told the Times the calls for impeachment amounted to nothing less than “a coup.”

In announcing the appointment of Armstead and Jenkins on August 25, Gov. Justice said: “We need true conservatives — this is really important — with honor and integrity to restore the trust from the blow to the stomach we’ve suffered in the last few months.”

That’s not the way Democrats see it.

“Governor Justice’s picks to fill the Supreme Court means more corruption and political positioning from Republican Leadership in West Virginia,” Belinda Biafore, chair of the state Democratic Party, said in a statement.

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“Not only do Armstead and Jenkins lack necessary experience,” she said, “but by aligning with Justice they have proven that they are nothing more than political peas in a pod and will continue to make decisions based on politics and not people.”

Jenkins has been particularly controversial. There are questions about whether Jenkins is even eligible to serve on the state Supreme Court.

And in May, during his failed bid to run against Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), Jenkins’ campaign aired a racist political ad which seemed to blame Black communities in Baltimore, Detroit, and Chicago for West Virginia’s opioid epidemic.

Amid all the turmoil, the court must also now take up a controversial case, despite originally delaying its return until October.

Because of the need for an expedited ruling ahead of the November midterm elections, the court this week will hear the case of Don Blankenship, chief executive of coal company Massey Energy, who is challenging the state’s “sore loser” election law. Blankenship was defeated in a Republican primary election in May for the chance to challenge incumbent Democratic Senator Joe Manchin.