A lawsuit against Gov. Jim Justice could leave it to West Virginia’s highest court to define a simple verb.
Justice’s lawyers wouldn’t define the word “reside” after a hearing Wednesday in the case of a Democratic lawmaker accusing the governor of failing to reside in Charleston, as the West Virginia Constitution requires.
Wednesday’s hearing inched the case forward. After Kanawha Circuit Judge Charles King refused to dismiss the matter last month, attorneys for the governor asked King to send questions to the Supreme Court to help define the legal meaning of residency, or for King to elaborate on his earlier decision.
If it’s the latter, Justice’s legal team signaled Wednesday an intent to appeal the ruling to the higher court.
George Terwilliger, the white-collar defense attorney and former acting U.S. attorney general who is representing the governor, said after the hearing the definition of the word reside is really the “nub of the problem.”
It’s about Justice doing his business in Charleston when he needs to, Terwilliger said, that matters.
Other attorneys for the governor have previously argued the definition of the word is “slippery like an eel.”
Terwilliger declined to say where the governor resides under the common definition of the verb.
“I think it’s the legal definition that’s in play here, that’s what we’ll be talking about in court,” he said.
Previously, both Justice and Mike Carey, his lead counsel, have said that Justice lives in Lewisburg. However, Carey elaborated on his remark.
“You can have more than one residence,” he said, “He resides in the Capitol, and he resides wherever he chooses on a nightly basis.”
For Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, a private attorney who’s representing himself on the case, the legal definition of residency has two components: bodily presence in a place and the intent to remain there.
He said the average West Virginian understands the word just fine.
“This isn’t some foreign thing, to reside,” he said after Wednesday’s hearing.
He said more than where he lives, people care about the governor of a state abiding by its own Constitution.
“Frankly I don’t think the average citizen gets that sense from this governor at all, that he follows any rules,” he said. “He just marches to the beat of his own drum. Rules, they don’t apply to Jim Justice.”
While King expressed some distaste for the phrasing of the proposed questions, he did not explicitly rule one way or the other. He did, however, delay the discovery process, which contains the exchange of evidence and depositions of key witnesses.
He did not say when he would rule on whether to go with certified questions or a more fleshed out order.