Supreme Court spending under scrutiny

WHEELING — West Virginia voters will decide this fall whether lawmakers will have oversight over the state Supreme Court’s budget, a move local lawmakers believe is necessary.

The proposed constitutional amendment will appear on the Nov. 6 general election ballot, and comes amid reports of high spending by the court’s office.

A recent legislative audit of spending by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals revealed as much as $3.7 million was spent on renovation of the court’s offices over a seven-year period. Among the items purchased was a sectional sofa costing nearly $34,000 for Justice Allen Loughry’s office, and three rugs with a price tag of nearly $30,000 for Justice Robin Davis’ office.

There have also been questions about the cost of rental cars and travel for the justices.

Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, said he has yet to see the audit, but he remembers the presentation of this year’s budget for the court by Loughry as “raising red flags.”

“Justice Loughry was patting himself on the back, telling us the court had voluntarily reduced its budget by $2 million,” Ferns said.

Ferns said when he pressed Loughry on where the savings would occur, and how much money a new e-filing system implemented by the court would save in costs, he couldn’t get a direct answer.

“It raised a lot of red flags for me,” Ferns said. “I had never encountered anything like that in a finance committee meeting. I never got so little substance when I asked a question.”

As it has been renovating its office, the justices also have been seeking to improve the overall reputation of the court. In the early 2000s, the court was deemed the most unfair in the nation by the American Tort Reform Association, which termed it a “judicial hellhole.”

Such remarks have subsided over the last decade, but Delegate Mike Ferro, D-Marshall, said legislative oversight over the court’s budget is necessary.

“It’s a good thing, because our highest court officials are being extravagant,” he said. “I hope they can get things straightened out and restore credibility to the court.

“They are the people most wanting to restore the court’s reputation, and they’re the ones most violating it,” he said. “It’s hard to explain.”

Delegate Erikka Storch, R-Ohio, is a member of the House Finance Committee. She isn’t certain the Legislature should have authority over the court’s budget, but she believes it nevertheless does need oversight.

“It’s kind of convoluted,” she said. “They are a separate and independent branch of government. We shouldn’t have authority over their budget.

“However, with their spending being so frivolous, somebody should be reviewing it and seeing what is going on up there.”

This is especially necessary as many state agencies have had their budgets cut in recent years, according to Storch.

“They really should be embarrassed,” she said.

The audit shows “a continued pattern of malfeasance coming out of the West Virginia Supreme Court,” said Delegate Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio.

“While the average West Virginian struggles to get by, those in power have no problem spending taxpayer money foolishly,” he said. “I am glad we are now shedding light on this issue, and at the end of the day I think heads should roll.”

Delegate Patrick McGeehan, R-Hancock, thinks there are some in Charleston who “may be out of touch with reality.”

“The flamboyant and ridiculous lifestyle of the justices on the Supreme Court reflects this, and I think what some of them have done are impeachable offenses,” he said. “But for the long term, it’s important that at least some measure of checks and balances are put into place to prevent this kind of flagrant abuse of the public treasury. One single branch of government was never intended to gain so much non-transparent power.”

(King can be contacted at jking@theintelligencer.net)

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